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COVID-19 taking a toll on Imperial Valley communities


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EL CENTRO — “This is worse than our 7.2 earthquake in 2010, with its terrible, nerve-wracking aftershocks.”

That’s how Father Ed Horning describes life in the Imperial Valley during the coronavirus pandemic.

He leads the Catholic Communities of Brawley and Westmoreland, composed of three parishes, Sacred Heart, St. Margaret Mary, and St. Joseph, which together serve about 2,000 faithful.

Imperial County, which has a population of about 180,000, continues to have among the highest infection rates in the state. In the last few weeks, the rate has fluctuated between 17 and 22 percent, meaning that out of every 100 people tested daily, between 17 to 22 people are infected.

The county had logged 9,162 positive cases as of July 27, and had only 18 percent of ICU beds open.

Father Horning said that more than 100 of his parishioners have contracted the virus, and at least 10 had died from it.

“We are not able to celebrate funerals as we did in the past,” he added. “Only graveside liturgies with 10 people or less.”

The county’s situation prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to reinstitute “stay-at-home” orders in late June, rolling back to Stage 1, which put the brakes on a plan to offer outdoor Masses at the last minute.

Public Masses have not been allowed in the Imperial Valley since March 15.

Father Horning’s parishioners are invited to watch a livestreamed Mass. Then they can receive the Eucharist in a soccer field behind Sacred Heart School in Brawley on Sundays and on Wednesdays at St. Joseph.

His community distributes sack lunches to needy individuals and families Monday through Friday, serving between 80 to 200 people a week.

The story is much the same at the El Centro Catholic (ECC), which comprises two parishes, four churches and one school serving 4,000 to 5,000 Catholics.

ECC also is livestreaming Masses from St. Mary’s Parish, and is distributing the Eucharist afterwards outdoors.

The community is led by Father Mark Edney, who in the last month started visiting El Centro Regional Medical Center to pray with the staff. To be able to do so, he had to receive special training to be in a highly infectious environment and has to wear a protective suit with a powered air-purifying respirator.

He, along with other Catholic and Protestant pastors, were able to begin to schedule visits with patients starting on July 21, something they had not been able to do since the pandemic began.

Father Edney has been in the Valley for eight years, and he says the situation is bad.

“Many families are struggling,” Father Edney said. “It’s hard to be cooped up in the house all the time.”

The situation is even harder for families that already were having difficulties, he added.

He’s worried about the economic impact the pandemic is having on the valley’s families, already among the state’s poorest, and on small businesses.

“I fear the economic consequences will be felt in the coming months,” said Father Edney, who is a member of the Imperial Valley Recovery Task Force. “Not only are food prices going up but so are other prices. We are in the hottest time, so air conditioning will be running all the time.”

ECC is providing food for needy individuals and families through three distribution programs, collectively serving an average of 1,500 to 1,600 families a week in communities such as Calipatria, Brawley, Heber, Imperial, Calexico, Holtville and El Centro.

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