Even people who knew little to nothing about statistical analysis a few weeks ago have come to understand the importance of “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases.
Basically, it means slowing the growth rate of the pandemic so cases are spread over a longer period of time rather than rising sharply over a few weeks. That prevents the disease from overwhelming the health-care system, increasing the recovery chances for people with the illness.
El Paso, like much of the world, has adopted measures that greatly restrict mobility, making it less likely that people will come in contact with others and spread the disease. Intensive education measures have focused on how hand-washing and other hygiene practices can limit viral transmission.
El Paso’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders first took effect on March 24. By mid-April, the growth rate of new cases started to slow and that has continued.
El Paso still has a very low testing rate, about 40 percent below national testing levels. So COVID-19 infections are undercounted, probably by a substantial margin. But indicators that are more independent of testing — particularly admissions to hospitals and intensive care units and use of ventilators — have been relatively low over the past couple of weeks. The health-care system has been able to manage COVID-19 cases without coming close to overload.
So while the reported numbers are low, the trend line is likely valid.
The slowing growth rate has meant that fewer El Pasoans have become ill so far.
El Paso Matters made projections on April 5 and April 16 based on COVID-19 growth rates at the time. The first projection was frightening, showing that cases could reach 5,000 by the end of April even if mitigation efforts were partly successful. The second projection in mid-April was more reassuring but still worrisome, putting us on a path for 1,800 cases by the end of the month.
But growth in the number of new cases has continued to slow over the past week, and it now appears that our total number of infections will be around 1,000 when the month ends on Thursday.
Mathematical projections are not predictions. The mobility restrictions can’t continue forever, and El Paso government has already begun relaxing its orders regarding parks. Gov. Greg Abbott has relaxed an order that shut down most retail outlets and is now allowing retailers to offer curbside pick up. He’s planning an announcement Monday on how Texas will reopen its economy.
An isolated outbreak can quickly spread to other areas, sending our growth rate back up.
We also don’t yet know if social distancing measures broke down over Easter. Sunday marks 14 days since Easter, which is the incubation period for COVID-19. But private labs have been taking three to five days to turn around test results, so we won’t have a good idea of an Easter impact until mid-week.
The city reported 74 new cases on Saturday, its highest so far and a possible indication that the feared Easter breakdown occurred.
And it’s important to remember that “flattening the curve” became a strategy when it was clear we were reacting too late in the United States to contain the virus. People will get sick in coming weeks and months, just over a longer period of time, even if mitigation efforts continue to be effective.