Four minutes. That’s how long Patsy Stallworth can breathe on her own if she takes out her oxygen tube in her hospital room.
The trashcan overflows at times. The hospital is short-staffed. Nurses and doctors walk in wearing hazmat suits. It’s a scene unfolding across El Paso, as the area faces a rapid surge of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Stallworth, who’s been in the hospital for 13 days as of Friday, described the scene as lonely and sad. “There’s no chitchat. It’s ‘Here’s this’ and ‘Here’s that,’ and ‘We’ll see you later,’ ” she said. “No visitors. It’s very difficult.”
Meanwhile, her husband, Ron Stallworth is at home in El Paso, also battling the virus. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan while working for the Colorado Springs, Colorado, police in the late 1970s, becoming the inspiration for the Spike Lee movie “BlacKkKlansman.”
Normally inseparable, the couple can now connect only through their phones as they face one of the most challenging times of their lives.
“It’s a very cruel disease,” Ron Stallworth told CNN, reflecting on their separation. “I’m not experiencing anything like what my wife is going through. I will gladly trade places with her, but this is the hand that we’ve been dealt.”
Local vs. state battles re-emerge amid pandemic
On Thursday, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, a Democrat, went against directives by the Republican Texas governor and issued a two-week shutdown of non-essential services, like tattoo parlors, hair and nail salons and gyms. Restaurants in the county will be limited to delivery or curbside service.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton responded Thursday night, saying Judge Samaniego “has no authority” to shut down businesses in El Paso, and his office is “quickly exploring all legal actions.”
It was a moment of deja vu. This summer, leaders in some of the biggest counties in Texas sparred with Gov. Greg Abbott, who refused to let local officials issue their own shutdowns.
As a sign of the confusing legal showdowns amid the pandemic, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, issued a statement Thursday night saying he’s seeking clarity from the state attorney general on the judge’s new order.
“What I can speak to is the hurt our community is going through,” he said. “We must strike a balance of keeping our neighbors safe while not destroying people’s abilities to feed their families.”
Texas was one of the first states in the country to begin a phased-in approach of reopening back in May. As the summer surge of cases rippled across Texas and the nation, Abbott took steps like closing down bars and issuing a mask mandate, but he largely maintains authority when it comes to shutdowns.
More than 17,800 people who tested positive for the virus have died in Texas, and the state is now seeing its highest levels of cases and hospitalizations since August.
The surge ‘didn’t slow down’
As of Friday morning, El Paso County, which sits on the southern border with Mexico, had reported 1,347 new positive Covid-19 tests and 10 new deaths, bringing the total death toll to 595, according to the City/County of El Paso Covid-19 website. There were more than 15,000 active cases in the community.
The spike has caught city officials by surprise.
“We knew that we were going to have a surge, but we expected that the surge was going to happen as the flu season increases in El Paso, which is in middle December,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the El Paso Health Authority. “We were expecting to have a surge after Labor Day, but we definitely are very concerned that it continued to climb and it didn’t slow down.”
Earlier this month, state officials began sending resources to El Paso, setting up tents outside of hospitals. The convention center is being turned into a makeshift medical unit to house Covid-19 patients. To make more space, non-Covid-19 patients have volunteered to be air-lifted to other hospitals in the state, and a local children’s hospital dedicated an entire floor to take adult patients without the virus.
Peter Svarzbein, El Paso city representative, supports the idea of shutting down non-essential businesses and had made a similar proposal at the city level in recent weeks.
“People need to understand that this is not normal, that things are at a crisis level and the way they want to live their lives they can’t do for right now,” he told CNN.
She’s ready to go home
Patsy Stallworth recalled going into the hospital in mid-October, feeling gripped by fear.
“It was very terrifying at the beginning because you think, ‘I’m not gonna make it. I’m going to go on a ventilator.’ And we know where that goes,” she said.
She’s thankful her trajectory looks positive. She has avoided the ICU, and doctors are discussing a discharge from the hospital next week. She said her goal is “to walk out of here Tuesday and go vote.”
The Stallworths said they took the virus seriously and took precautions to avoid getting sick. They’re now urging others to do the same, using themselves as an example of how anyone can get it.
Most of all, Ron Stallworth simply wants to hold his wife. “I’m patiently awaiting when I can take her in my arms again.”