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Commentary Coronavirus Featured

El Paso’s COVID-19 growth rate slows in sign safety rules are working. But uncertainty abounds.

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As the number of COVID-19 cases approaches 400, evidence is emerging that compliance with strict government mandates and safety suggestions is slowing the spread of the disease in El Paso County.

The number of new El Paso cases are now doubling every seven days. That’s, a sharp improvement over the three- to four-day doubling rate seen over the first four weeks after the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was first detected in El Paso, an El Paso Matters analysis of public health reports shows.

Despite improving trends, some unknowns make it hard to predict with any certainty that the declining growth of new cases will continue in the coming weeks. El Pasoans continue to flood the city with complaints about noncompliance with stay home orders.

“We’re still getting thousands of reports of people not complying with the directive as it stands now,” Mayor Dee Margo said Wednesday. “And until that can occur and until we can start not seeing such an increase in the numbers of positives, we’re not in a position to consider inclusiveness, our directive, limitations on our economy

Even if the slowing growth rate continues, El Paso seems likely to have more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases by the end of April. The number of reported deaths — six as of Wednesday — is also likely to grow based on experiences in other communities. 

Strict measures put in place by El Paso government officials beginning March 17 were extended this week until May 17. Bars remain closed, most retail shops other than groceries and pharmacies are shuttered, all public gatherings are prohibited, only essential businesses are allowed to bring in workers, parks are off-limits, children are being educated at home.

“Our numbers continue to rise. If we don’t stay at home, practice social distancing, and wear the recommended face coverings when in public, it is only a matter of time before one of our loved ones is struck by COVID-19 and we do not want more devastated families. We can prevent this by being proactive in our approach, but it will take all of us,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, city/county health authority.

Slowing growth in new cases

The number of new reported cases in recent days have been shocking at times. El Paso didn’t report more than 18 new cases in a day until April 8. In the past week, we’ve seen daily case reports in the 30s and 40s. That’s part of the initial exponential growth pattern in epidemics and pandemics. El Paso is still in the exponential growth stage of COVID-19, and likely will be for a few more weeks.

But even as cases have mounted, the average daily growth rate slowed this week. That’s an encouraging sign. 

On April 5, we explained why April 9 was an important date in El Paso’s fight against COVID-19. That was two weeks after El Paso implemented its “Stay Home, Work Safe” order that shut down most of normal life in El Paso. Two weeks is the incubation period for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. If vast numbers of people were complying with the government orders, as well as practicing recommended social distancing and hygiene standards, El Paso should see a slowing growth rate in infections.

Early indications are that El Paso is seeing a slowing in the growth rate of new reported cases. In the week since April 8, the number of  new reported cases in El Paso has grown by about 11 percent a day on average. That’s well below the growth rates in the prior four weeks.

Projecting new infections

In our April 5 report, we used a University of Pennsylvania model to project how El Paso cases might grow, assuming the government restrictions and other measures would slow the growth rate significantly. Even with that assumption, projections in early April pointed to more than 5,000 cases in El Paso by the end of the month.

Early indications are that the growth rate has slowed more dramatically than in the assumptions of our earlier model. Again, that’s good news. If current trends continue, we’d have about 1,700 cases by the end of the month. That’s still a large number, but not as bad as previous trends suggested.

El Pasoans have greatly reduced movements

The key to slowing COVID-19 infections is to reduce social contacts, which is how the virus spreads. That’s the principle behind the “stay home” orders in El Paso and around the country. The success of those orders depends primarily on voluntary compliance.

Mobility data gathered by Google suggests that El Paso compliance with “stay home” directives has been slightly better than the rest of the country and Texas.

The rate of increased residential visits in El Paso grew since the last report 10 days ago, a possible indication that families were gathering over Easter. Health officials have warned such gatherings could lead to more COVID-19 infections.

Let’s not celebrate yet

Although we’re seeing indications that efforts to slow COVID-19 are working, we have a lot of pain ahead. A couple of major points of uncertainty could cause our growth rate to increase in the next few weeks.

El Paso’s biggest blind spot has been a lack of detailed information on how many people have been tested here. Until this week, public health officials have tracked full results only on tests performed at their lab, even though most COVID-19 tests are conducted by private labs. With private lab tests, public health officials were only reporting positive tests.

On Wednesday, Ocaranza said that private labs had tested almost 4,900 cases. The public health lab had tested about 1,000.

Ocaranza said El Paso’s testing rate of almost six people for every 1,000 population is higher than the national average reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it also means that fewer than 1 percent of El Pasoans have been tested, and Ocaranza was unable to provide demographic breakdowns on who had been tested.

El Paso’s official count is capturing only a fraction of the COVID-19 cases, which is true everywhere because of lack of access to testing. Until El Paso can extensively expand its testing availability, we risk sudden localized outbreaks that can quickly spread. Again, this is not a challenge unique to El Paso.

Ocaranza said Wednesday that 32 COVID-19 infections were at a single health-care facility, which he wouldn’t identify. El Paso Matters last week reported that the outbreak was at the El Paso Psychiatric Center. KVIA-TV reported on Tuesday that an employee at the center had died after testing positive for COVID-19.

Another unknown is whether compliance with government orders weakened over Easter, a time when families traditionally come together in El Paso. City officials reported they issued more than 300 warnings and nine citations for violations of the “Stay Home, Work Safe” edict over Easter weekend.

If compliance broke down significantly over Easter, we could see a spike in reported COVID-19 cases in the next seven to 10 days.

The final unknown is whether El Pasoans can continue compliance for at least another month. Staying away from family, friends and work goes against human nature. If compliance weakens while we’re still in the exponential growth phase of the pandemic, we could see steeper increases in new case reports.

Cover photo: Shoppers wore masks and stayed at least six feet away from each other as the lined up to be allowed inside the Central El Paso Costco on Wednesday. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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