Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the city and county’s health authority during the COVID-19 pandemic, says while ordered closures and social distancing requirements have caused economic pain, they are vital to protect the health of El Pasoans.
Ocaranza is the authority who issued the stay-at-home orders two weeks ago, which were later tightened on Thursday to include the closure of the city’s parks and recreational trails.
“We can still be close, but through the screens and virtual means. Together we can pull out of this pandemic in a better position and a lot stronger, because we’re El Paso strong,” he said in a phone interview with El Paso Inc. late Thursday.
In addition to the indefinite length of the closure orders, El Pasoans are facing sharp spikes in unemployment and blows to the region’s restaurant and service industries.
As of Friday, there were 96 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in El Paso, according to city officials. Those numbers do not include Fort Bliss, and the Department of Defense is no longer releasing COVID-19 case numbers.
Ocaranza has been with the city for 10 to 12 years, he said. He completed his undergraduate education at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez in 1993 and went to medical school at Texas Tech University in 1999, where he specialized in pediatrics.
Ocaranza also said he received his master’s in public health from the UT Houston School of Public Health in 2014.
He spent some time talking to El Paso Inc. last week about the pandemic, his decision to issue the stay-at-home order, how El Pasoans are complying with social distancing and if he expects to issue stricter orders.
Q: What is your role in the city and county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
As the health authority, I’m an officer of the state where I’m in charge of implementing and protecting public health and wellbeing. I need to take any necessary measures to establish that. I’m responsible for instituting isolation and quarantine orders for those infectious diseases that can cause a threat to public health.
Q: Are you following a plan for, say, when to hold press briefings and how to communicate to the public?
We had a pandemic plan in the city that was developed when the H1N1 pandemic came to the United States. We had the threat of some other pandemics like SARS and other coronavirus that was emerging from the Middle East. All that made us have pandemic plans.
Q: We’re experiencing something new with these closures of “non-essential” businesses. What’s the precedent this is setting for how we respond to these crises moving forward?
This is a life-changing event. We have some precedent of what happened in the United States in 1918 with the flu pandemic. Cities responded in different ways, and you saw the effects of the pandemic on those communities depending on the implementation of different strategies.
There are going to be a lot of lessons learned on how effective our orders and preventive measures are going to be.
Many people feel invaded by the orders because we’re limiting everything they used to do. Those issues are very hard to take. But we balance the risk and benefits, and we cannot afford to risk a life for the economic impact of the orders.
Q: Do you think the region’s isolation from other major cities will help or hurt our efforts to contain COVID-19?
It’s something quite interesting. Many people may believe that the way we’re isolated from the rest of the U.S. is something bad, because we all need to take planes to get to bigger metro areas or drive to go anywhere when we want to travel.
In reality, it’s been a little beneficial and a blessing for us. We were one of the last ones to get affected by the pandemic. It lets us see, observe, learn and act based on what we’ve seen in other communities. In that sense, it allowed us to implement strict measures way before we were hit by the virus.
Q: Do you think we’re doing a good job overall of complying?
We believe this is very serious and very alarming in the way we see people not taking these orders seriously. But we’re prepared to enforce in more drastic ways if we need to. If I at the end of the day can save lives, then I feel like my job is done.
Q: Do you expect even tighter orders for El Paso?
It’s a day by day kind of thing. But is there room to be stricter? Yes, definitely. If we can control what we’re able to control, we will do it. There are many other variables in our community that are out of our control, like Mexico and New Mexico. But they’re part of our community. The benefit we’re providing to the whole region is going to be seen everywhere.
Q: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently included religious groups and churches as part of essential services. Can you still tell churches here they have to be closed?
We’re in constant communication with faith-based groups. We’re all cooperating. They are essential. We all need spiritual guidance. We all need to be looking out for something greater. We don’t want to disturb that. What we want is for people to continue receiving their spiritual care. We’d love for people to reach out to those faith-based groups, but without gathering. We need to continue maintaining social distancing.