El Paso City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of the county’s former 911 emergency headquarters building in Downtown for $5 million.

That building, and another it purchased for $5.4 million last month, will house the city’s fast-growing COVID-19 operations as it prepares for the pandemic to stretch into next year and, possibly, beyond.

The city has moved quickly because the federal CARES Act funding it’s using to purchase the properties expires on Dec. 31.

El Paso has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases since Labor Day. On Friday, the city reported 329 new cases – the highest daily count since July when cases surged after the Fourth of July. Nationwide, new coronavirus cases have edged up as President Donald Trump revealed that he and the first lady, Melania Trump, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The former 911 call center is located at 200 N. Kansas at the intersection of Kansas Street and Texas Avenue. Built in 2005, the two-story, 71,000-square-foot building is as undistinguished from the outside as it is valuable inside.

It will serve as the city’s new headquarters for a much-expanded COVID-19 contact tracing operations, after the city spends another $1.5 million to furnish and equip the building.

According to city officials, it’s packed with very usable communications equipment that the county left behind when it moved the City-County Office of Emergency Management to 6055 Threadgill.

“We are already using a portion of the building and staff will continue to occupy the building as additional work areas are set up,” said city spokesperson Tammy Fonce in response to questions from El Paso Inc.

“The building will house more than 150 people, including epidemiologists, the COVID Education Task Force and contact tracers,” she said.

City Engineer Sam Rodriguez, who is overseeing the project, said, “The guidelines that came from the federal government allowed us to purchase facilities to respond to COVID-19 – not just in the short term, but on a continuous basis.”

Together with the use of face masks and social distancing, medical experts regard contact tracing as a highly effective means of controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It involves questioning people infected by COVID-19 about those they’ve been close to, including family, friends, co-workers and health care providers, and then tracking them down and testing them for the virus and then continuing the process if they test positive.

Those who test positive are advised to seek medical attention if necessary and isolate themselves.

Even if they don’t test positive for the virus, but were in contact with someone who did, they’ll be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days from family, friends and even pets.

It is a long and winding process that requires a lot of investigators and time.

The city’s move to purchase the former 911 building follows its purchase of another building on Sept. 1 at 9566 Railroad Drive for $5.4 million.

“That facility is going to be built out and outfitted as the city laboratory,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, the city lab is in property we lease from the county, and it’s not big enough or outfitted to really keep up with the demand.

“This is a warehouse type facility that will be the logistics center for PPE (personal protective equipment), testing and testing materials, you name it – everything that’s needed for a response from a logistical standpoint.

The Railroad Drive property will also serve as a clinic where people can go for testing and vaccinations. The city plans to open more clinics to do the same.

While there is an additional funding bill pending in the U.S. House that may or may not see approval, the Dec. 31 deadline has local governments across the country concerned that COVID-19 will continue to cause serious problems heading into next year, whether there’s money to address them or not.

“We got federal money that we know we needed to use by Dec. 31,” Rodriguez said. “But we know for sure that the pandemic is going to extend beyond Dec. 31, and these facilities are going to allow us to respond for the long term.”

The question of funding those future needs for communities across the country rests with the federal government, Rodriguez said, noting that El Paso city revenues “have declined tremendously.”

Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.


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