El Paso issues a curfew ahead of Thanksgiving as it continues to fight a surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths

Inmates prepare to load bodies into a refrigerated trailer turned into temporary morgue in a parking lot of the El Paso County Medical Examiner's Office. By Raja Razek and Hollie Silverman, CNN

(CNN) -- El Paso County, Texas, has ordered a new curfew starting Thanksgiving eve as it continues to grapple with rising Covid-19 cases and so many deaths that 10 additional morgue units have been brought in to accommodate the surge.

The situation is so dire that 1,500 additional medical professionals and the National Guard have been deployed to help. Even inmates have been enlisted to assist in morgue operations as the death toll grows.

The curfew took effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and will run from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. until November 30, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego announced at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

"We need to do everything possible to avoid the perfect storm," Samaniego said. "I will use every tool that I have such as issuing a curfew to slow the spread of this virus. We're now cautiously anticipating the outcome of Thanksgiving. Black Friday, Christmas, New Year's, and the terrifying effects of the flu season."

The new curfew doesn't close businesses but discourages residents from leaving their homes or gather over the holiday week.

Death toll requiring more morgue capacity

On Tuesday, an additional 1,257 cases and 15 new deaths were reported in El Paso County, the El Paso Covid-19 dashboard shows, bringing the total number of cases to 82,809 and 887 deaths. That's out of a population of 680,000.

While hospitalizations have dropped seven days in a row, the situation is still at crisis level, with 43% of all hospitalizations in El Paso being Covid-19 related, Samaniego said. That's a decrease from 53% last week, he added.

Over 300 remain hospitalized in the ICU with the virus.

During a Monday meeting, Commissioner Carlos Leon said the county is looking for more cold storage to treat those who are dying "with dignity."

Additional assistance arrived last week when a team of 36 National Guard troops were deployed to "provide mortuary affairs support," according to the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM).

El Paso County-City Office of Emergency Management and the National Guard are managing the development of cold storage facility.

"We're short-handed," Samaniego told KVIA. "People are really tired; nurses and doctors are tired."

To temporarily relieve overworked personnel, the El Paso County Medical Examiner's Office recruited inmates earlier this month to move the dead.

Nine inmates from an El Paso County Sheriff's Office detention facility volunteered to assist the medical examiner's office, Chris Acosta, public affairs director for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, told CNN weeks ago.

At the time, Judge Samaniego told CNN affiliate KVIA that the inmates were there to "lend a helping hand" to overworked staff at the medical examiner's office, where over 100 bodies are being housed in the permanent and mobile morgues.

"As we've seen a rapid increase in cases and hospitalizations, we are unfortunately also seeing a spike in deaths. We have been working closely with funeral homes and mortuaries to assist with increased capacity and coordination of resources," El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said in a statement on Twitter.

Funeral homes in the area are also dealing with the surge, and Samaniego commended their efforts as they "continue to work day and night trying to do the best that they can given such high volumes."

"Our funeral homes have done an unbelievable job of trying to process a very dignified situation for our loved ones and other families that have lost loved ones. It's extremely appreciated the volume is just immense," Samaniego said during the news conference Tuesday.

Judge says restrictions will save lives

Restrictions include a limit on gatherings of no more than 10 in public and at home, Samaniego said during the news conference.

He explained that he is committed to creating a balance between opening safely and ensuring that businesses continue to operate. Gov. Greg Abbott's office has agreed to the new order proposed.

"You will be able to be purchasing, shopping, whatever it is that you need to do of any essential or nonessential businesses under the conditions that are placed," he said. "We're trying to create a balance on the health of our community and the economy."

"But let me emphasize the following. It is a shelter at home order. Residents are strongly urged to shelter at home. If leaving home to obtain essential or nonessential service, this order strongly recommends that only one person per family participate in obtaining goods and services," he added.

Samaniego encouraged big box stores to distribute their Black Friday sales throughout the day to avoid large crowds that may gather for specific sales. He also urged El Paso residents and businesses to utilize curbside, to go delivery and online services to avoid large crowds.

"Do not gather outside of stores before opening hours," the judge warned residents. "You know that's quite a tradition something that was very exciting. And these are some of the sacrifices that will help us by not doing that will help us have many more opportunities and many more things giving holidays."

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