Coronavirus compounds trauma for grieving community of El Paso after Walmart massacre

Death and darkness came to El Paso, Texas, nearly a year ago in the form of a man who police say drove nearly 700 miles from the Dallas area to kill Latinos.

Now, like the rest of the world, El Paso faces a different danger, COVID-19, which is ripping through the city and El Paso County.

Twelve months have passed since the domestic terrorist attack left 23 people dead and over two dozen injured on Aug. 3, 2019, making it the deadliest attack against Hispanics in the nation’s recent history. Authorities say the suspect in the shootings wrote a racist manifesto and targeted Latinos.

While El Paso has scheduled a number of activities to mark the event, residents and victims’ loved ones won’t get to hug, touch or gather publicly as many communities have done in the past on the anniversaries of the country’s accumulating mass shootings. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, to do so this year might bring more death, so the events will have to be smaller.

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“I believe it would have been something grand, something really nice, to honor these people, all these people that passed in that tragic way and day,” said Melissa Tinajero, 46, who had envisioned a public memorial during which her extended family would mark the life of Arturo Benavides, her uncle. Her mother, Yolanda, said she misses hugging her brother, a proud military veteran and retired bus driver who was the first to arrive at family parties — and who loved to rib her and her siblings at their weekly lunches.

Arturo Benavides’ wife, Patricia, holds a photo of her husband, who was killed in the Aug. 3, 2019, domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, with some of his siblings at his memorial.Family photo

“We would have had a really nice memorial, and now it’s being restricted,” Tinajero said. “So it’s hard. It’s not natural.”

Avoiding one another is out of character for those in El Paso, which exuded community after the massacre at the Walmart store, which regularly drew shoppers from both sides of the border.

The city saw strangers from two countries show up at memorials for the victims. When a heartbroken man, Antonio Basco, invited people of the city to a memorial for his wife, Margaret Reckard, who was among those killed, thousands turned out to the funeral home.

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“Most communities have the opportunity to memorialize when they go through something tragic like what occurred here in El Paso, to pay homage, to pay respect, to create awareness of the violence and of the hurt in the community,” said Democratic state Rep. César Blanco of El Paso, who has personally dealt with the coronavirus in his extended family. “El Paso doesn’t really get that opportunity because of COVID.”

El Paso County, with a population of about 720,400, ranked at the top or near the top of Texas’ largest counties in deaths from the coronavirus per 100,000 people this month.

Grief and trauma amid social distancing

“When something comes out of the blue,” Tinajero said, reflecting on what happened to her uncle, “that’s something that’s kind of hard to accept, hard to swallow.” She and her mother say they have relied on their faith to get them through the unexplainable, “what we don’t understand.”

“It’s in my mind, more often, you know, daily, and it’s just more present,” Tinajero said.

Mental health professionals have been preparing for the anniversary. The reliving of events and remembering of loved ones are common after trauma and loss.

Many of the victims and other people who were in the Walmart store — as well as some medical personnel who attended to the victims — have been getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, said Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, a psychiatrist with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso.

But the pandemic disrupted everything, he said.

Patients who developed PTSD were already fearful of being in public places after the attack. Now, as COVID-19 cases surge, they have to weigh the risk of going to clinics for treatment.

Some appointments are held via videoconference, or they are combinations of online and in person.

These patients need physical touch and togetherness with family and friends, which is harder to get in these times of social isolation and distancing, Delgado said. Mental illness thrives in isolation, he said.

“During these last few months, we’ve seen a rise in the suicide attacks and the very severe psychiatric presentations,” Delgado said. Add the massacre anniversary, and “I’m really bracing for an uptick in the cases, in severe presentations,” and seeing those cases in emergency rooms, he said.

A doctor asks, ‘When is this going to end?’

For two weeks after the massacre, Dr. Alejandro Ríos Tovar, a trauma surgeon at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, was the doctor managing all of the Walmart shooting victims who were in intensive care. Fourteen shooting victims went to his hospital, including five or six who had surgery that he helped perform, which he described in heart-rending testimony before Congress.

Now, what they’re facing with the coronavirus is draining the health teams, he said, but in a very different way.

Trauma surgeon Alejandro Rios Tovar took care of El Paso shooting victims and is now grappling with surging coronavirus cases.Courtesy Alejandro Rios Tovar

“The shooting a year ago, it came, we treated our patients, we came together as a hospital in a moment of crisis,” said Ríos Tovar, an assistant professor who is the center’s associate trauma medical director. “The difference is, with COVID, it is nonstop, it just gets worse and worse. You have your highs and you have your lows, but it’s just ‘When is this going to end?'”

He recounted how one of the hospital’s respiratory therapists became infected with COVID-19 from a patient. The therapist’s husband then contracted the virus and died.

“I’m exhausted from the situation,” he said.

The anniversary seems to have come so quickly that Ríos Tovar isn’t really sure how he’ll mark the day, particularly with his mind and hands so focused on the coronavirus.

“Although we’ve helped people get back to their lives or try to get back, there are others that didn’t have the chance to come back,” he said.

There are some bright spots. One of his patients from the Walmart shooting is walking again and just got to celebrate another birthday. Ríos Tovar joined a car caravan of well-wishers, as people do now for coronavirus patients.

Still tackling gun violence, deadly racism

After the shooting, several legislators, most of them Latino, advocated for measures to address gun violence and access to powerful firearms.

On Aug. 31, 2019, a man who authorities say had recently been fired from his job killed eight people and injured 25 others in a mass shooting in Odessa and Midland, Texas.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott created a commission to offer advice on an action plan but rejected calls for a special legislative session to address gun violence.

One of those who has been pushing for change is Blanco, the state representative, who is on track to be elected to the state Senate this year. But he worries that the coming session will inevitably focus on the coronavirus pandemic. “My hope is any kind of reforms we need on guns doesn’t take a back seat to COVID,” he said.

But the El Paso massacre wasn’t just about gun violence. Authorities said the suspect told them that he targeted “Mexicans” and had decried a “Hispanic invasion” in the racist screed they say he wrote that spouted white nationalist ideology.

“It’s clear it was not just a random attack,” community activist Marisa Limón Garza told NBC News after the shootings. “This illness is racism and xenophobia.”

President Donald Trump’s speech condemning the shooting drew outrage when he didn’t mention that the majority of the victims were Hispanic.

Some pointed out the dangers of the president’s rhetoric, with his initial campaign speech decrying Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug traffickers and rapists; his administration’s measures to separate migrant children from their parents — which was started in El Paso — and his calls not to allow migrants to “invade our country.”

After the anti-Latino Walmart shooting, state legislators, many of them Hispanic, declared the need to tone down anti-immigrant rhetoric, even blasting Abbott for the language in one of his campaign mailings.

This month, a self-described “anti-feminist” lawyer who went to the house of New Jersey’s first Hispanic U.S. district judge shot and killed her 20-year-old son and critically injured her husband, authorities say. The shooter, who later killed himself, left a trail of extensive racist writings in which he called the judge, Esther Salas, “a lazy and incompetent Latina judge appointed by Obama” and railed against other Latina judges, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“My hope had been that all that suffering would have served as a wake-up call for our country, not just on gun violence, but on racism,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso. “I felt the country was waking up. I thought it turned a corner, but I still feel we are so very far away from the corner I’d hoped we’d turned.”

Although the city showed the world its resilience after the massacre with its “El Paso Strong” motto and attitude — now used in response to the coronavirus crisis — “I do worry about so much trauma over and over again and how much people can take,” she said.

Tinajero said the family has kept the focus on remembering Benavides’ life.

“He was a very, very, very good person,” said her mother, Yolanda, Benavides’ sister. Tinajero added, “There was just so much more to him than anyone will ever know.”

The extended relatives have stayed close together, even though they can’t see one another because of the coronavirus. “We are still united,” Yolanda said, “and that helps the healing.”

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