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Coronavirus Government

El Paso Matters weekly COVID-19 data report: City creates confusion about the numbers

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Our weekly update on COVID-19 data is below, but first we want to offer some concerns about the data as it is released by the city government.

On Thursday, the city announced 197 new COVID-19 cases in the county, the highest one day total yet.

“As I’ve said before this spike clearly shows that many people do not adhere to the warnings and preventative measures we have clearly stated. We must each acknowledge that we are responsible for our own actions, which affects our friends and family.” Dr. Hector Ocaranza said in a statement announcing the numbers.

Hours later, the city issued another press release that offered a different explanation for the sharp rise in new cases.

“Health officials advised the sharp increase is due to a cluster at a local correctional-detention facility that accounted for 145 new cases,” the new release said.

In the Friday news release presenting new daily numbers, the city said “about half” of the 144 new cases announced that day were tied to an unidentified correctional-detention facility.

Unlike many other governments, the city refuses to identify facilities that have had COVID-19 outbreaks, even when the facilities identify themselves.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been reporting for weeks on COVID-19 cases at its facilities across the state, including the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail in Far East El Paso. KFOX reported that TDCJ said the city was reporting weeks-old data from the jail, which completed testing all inmates more than two weeks ago and hasn’t had any new cases since. 

It appears the city still hasn’t accounted for all the state jail cases. The city is reporting 273 COVID-19 cases among people held at detention facilities in the county as of Friday. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is reporting 283 infections among Rogelio Sanchez State Jail inmates as of that date. The El Paso County Jail and Juvenile Probation Department have reported single-digit numbers of infections among its detainees. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported 44 cases among detainees at the El Paso Processing Center, but the city has previously said it is not including those cases in its numbers.

The state jail situation illustrates problems with timeliness of test results. People getting tested are told their results will be available in three to six days, but KVIA recently reported that it often takes longer for notifications to come.

So the daily testing numbers being released tell us about the COVID-19 situation a week or so earlier, not today. That’s a limitation of the nature of testing and reporting. Some tests can generate results in 15 minutes, but a recent study said those quick tests produce a high number of false negatives.

So with those caveats in mind, here’s a look at the most recent data.

New weekly cases

We’re making a slight adjustment to how we report new weekly cases. Previously, we had reported totals from Friday of the previous week through Thursday, because El Paso’s first reported case came on a Friday. We’re now reporting on a Sunday-Saturday weekly basis to be more consistent with how weekly data is reported nationwide.

El Paso hit a new weekly high in cases last week, driven by public health officials adding weeks-old data from the state jail to county totals. That’s important because one of the criteria used to determine phased reopenings of facilities is a 14-day decline in new cases. Adding in weeks-old data makes it difficult to determine El Paso’s trend in new cases.

The average daily growth rate in the number of new cases has held between 2.6 percent and 4.3 percent over the past six weeks. However, the city’s lag in reporting state jail cases affects the reliability of  these numbers as well.

Testing rates

We’re changing our presentation of testing numbers to make it more clear that the number of reported tests is not the same as the number of people tested.

Governments across the country, including El Paso, report the total number of tests administered. However, one person can get multiple tests. This is particularly true for those who test positive, who may take subsequent tests until they have two consecutive negative tests.

Mayor Dee Margo has said the city’s goal is to have 5 percent of residents tested for COVID-19 by the end of June. It’s not clear how El Paso officials will determine that. Most testing is done in private labs, and the state has cautioned that private lab tests can’t be “de-duplicated,” meaning there’s no way of determining the total number of people tested by private labs.

Here’s how many tests have been conducted in El Paso, Texas and New Mexico per 1,000 residents as of Thursday, June 11. Two numbers are given for El Paso County because local public health officials and the state give differing numbers for the county.

Hospitalizations and deaths

The number of people requiring hospitalization and intensive care has been stuck on a high plateau for more than two weeks. State health officials report that El Paso and neighboring Hudspeth and Culberson counties account for 5 percent of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas as of Thursday, June 11, even though those counties have only 3 percent of the state’s population.

El Paso continues to have plenty of available hospital and ICU beds, according to state reports.

El Paso County had 97 reported COVID-19 deaths as of Thursday.

Here’s the trend as of Thursday, June 10.

Why we’re suspending projections

El Paso Matters has been providing mathematical projections of what would happen if COVID-19 cases continued growing at current rates. But we’re suspending those projections for now.

Meaningful projections require an accurate picture of the current situation. The city’s lag in reporting state jail cases raises questions about the accuracy of current data it is providing. We’ll hold off on projections until we’re more comfortable that El Paso health officials can provide timely, accurate data on the current number of COVID-19 cases. 

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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. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, 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 the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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