COVID-19 takes grim toll on border healthcare workers who demand better protection

Border Report

At least 35 doctors, nurses, aides and other staff members have died in the El Paso-Juarez area since the pandemic began

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Healthcare workers charged with caring for COVID-19 patients continue to die in the region. And on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, nurses, nursing assistants and lab techs are calling for additional resources from their employers.

In El Paso, the City-County Health Department has reported 859 coronavirus clusters among the staff of healthcare facilities and nursing homes, resulting in the death of 11 employees since the pandemic began.

Graphic courtesy City of El Paso, Texas
The toll for medical personnel in neighboring Chihuahua state (courtesy State of Chihuahua)

In neighboring Chihuahua, Mexico, the state’s health ministry has confirmed 1,427 COVID-19 cases among health workers, resulting in 24 deaths, most of them in Juarez. Eight of the fatalities involved physicians.

In Juarez, nurses earlier this summer staged several walkouts and marches, demanding adequate personal protective equipment and bonuses for working under an especially high-risk environment.

One nurse earlier told Border Report she had to send her children to relatives in Chihuahua City because she didn’t want to inadvertently infect them with COVID-19.

In El Paso on Thursday, health care workers affiliated with Service Employees International Union held a moment of silence in front of Las Palmas Medical Center on behalf of health workers who have died during the pandemic.

“We’re lacking personal protective equipment. They want us to reuse it but that’s very risky,” said Jorge Esquivel, a nursing assistant. “You experience uncertainty because you don’t know if you’re infected and if you could pass it on to your family. That’s scary.”

He also complained about staffing levels that add to employee workload and the lack of hazard pay.

Health workers who are members of Service Employees International Union held a memorial service and protest in front of Las Palmas Hospital on Thursday. They remembered health workers who’ve died of COVID-19 and called for adequate personal protective equipment and staffing levels. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Las Palmas later sent a statement saying it has maintained a “steadfast focus” on protecting frontline healthcare workers and said no staff members have died of COVID-19. It credited caregivers for their unwavering commitment to patients and said it has protected them through screening, testing, universal masking, contact tracing and other safeguards, “We’re proud of our response and the significant resources we’ve deployed to help keep our colleagues safe. Meanwhile, these unions are attempting to use this pandemic as an opportunity to gain publicity by attacking hospitals across the country,” the statement said.

Martha Esaes, a healthcare worker at University Medical Center, said she lost her husband of 26 years to COVID-19 on Aug. 5 and wonders if he’d still be alive if his test results had been available in a more timely manner.

“He worked at one of the hospitals here. He was a good man, a decent man, a man of God. He shouldn’t have died,” she said at Thursday’s gathering. “Every health worker in America worries about bringing COVID to their loved ones. I worry that I did and I pray that I didn’t.”

She said it took her husband a full week to get his test result, whereas another relative was able to get hers within 24 hours and is still alive.

“Everyone is tested differently, results (come in) differently,” she said. “Why did it take so damn long for us to get those results? Why couldn’t he have gotten them the next day and still be alive today?”

Nurses and nursing aides aren’t the only ones who worry. Lab and instrument technicians like Aracely Fernandez also fear for their lives and those of their loved ones.

“I don’t deal with patients but I (handle) surgical instruments for the whole hospital and it’s very scary because equipment comes from rooms where patients have COVID,” she said.

Fernandez said it “It’s scary because working on a hospital I can take it to my daughters … they support me because I gotta work (but) I take extra measures when I get home, before I touch them, before I hug them so I know I’m not bringing that to them.”

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