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Weekly COVID-19 report: El Paso hospitalizations inch down; little change in number of new cases

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El Paso is seeing some positive indicators with COVID-19 as hospitalization numbers have shown a slow but consistent decline over the past two weeks. The number of new reported deaths was a five week low. However, the number of new cases reported has been stuck near an average of 500 a week for the past month.

Here’s El Paso Matters’ weekly look at COVID-19 data.

Hospitalizations and deaths

A slow two-week decline in hospitalizations appears to have come to an end, with the number of people with COVID-19 requiring hospitalizations returning to high levels we have seen for several weeks.

On Thursday, El Paso ended 13 consecutive days of fewer than 100 people with COVID-19 in the hospital. Hospitalizations were above 100 every day from May 19-31 before starting a slow decline.

The number of COVID-19 cases requiring treatment in intensive care units is below peak levels of late May but has dropped below 50 only once since May 19. Numbers are as of Friday, June 19.

El Paso reached 100 COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, but the number of deaths announced last week was the lowest in five weeks. Twenty-three of the deaths were among people in nursing homes, the Department of Public Health reported.

The weekly totals are the number of new deaths announced each week, not necessarily the number of people who died of COVID-19 that week. Health officials have said it sometimes takes days or longer to confirm COVID-19 as a cause of death.

New cases

The number of new COVID-19 cases in El Paso in recent weeks has been muddied by delays in accounting for a huge outbreak at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail. More than 200 state jail cases were added to El Paso’s count the week of May 31-June 6, even though the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had disclosed those cases on its COVID-19 dashboard two weeks earlier. 

As a result, the numbers for May 31-June 6 were inflated by the late addition of the cases, while numbers from the two prior weeks appear to have been under-reported.

One way to smooth out the numbers is to average the three weeks between May 17 and June 6. In that period, El Paso County reported an average of 525 new cases per week. 

Over the past week, El Paso County reported 496 new cases. That’s a decline of 5.5 percent over the average of the prior three weeks, but higher than the prior week if you exclude the state jail numbers. We’ll need a couple more weeks of data to better understand the trend.

In recent weeks the city has been releasing “cluster reports” of outbreaks in various facilities. The city refuses to name the facilities, even when some private and government facilities have acknowledged outbreaks.

As of Friday, 29 percent of all COVID-19 cases in El Paso can be traced to detention facilities, nursing homes, “general businesses and health-care facilities, according to the Department of Public Health data.

Testing rates

The number of COVID-19 tests in El Paso grew by about 3 percent last week, but our testing rate remains well below the national average and is less than half the rate of neighboring New Mexico.

Governments report the number of tests administered, which is not the same as the number of people tested. Individuals can get multiple tests. People who test positive for COVID-19 often are repeatedly tested, even after they no longer show symptoms.

El Paso health officials have repeatedly confused the number of tests administered with the number of people tested. At a City Council meeting last week, city officials repeatedly used the number of tests administered to claim that 5 percent of El Paso County’s population has been tested. Several City Council members questioned that claim; City Manager Tommy Gonzalez promised to look at the data more closely and report back to City Council.

We report two numbers for the number of tests in El Paso, because local and state counts vary widely.  Testing rates are as of Sunday, June 14.

COVID-19 cases by ZIP code

COVID-19 infection rates vary widely by ZIP code in El Paso and Doña Ana counties. Outbreaks in detention facilities and a nursing home distort these numbers at times.

The highest infection rate in the region is in 88081 in Chaparral, N.M. That is driven by an outbreak of more than 600 cases at a private prison and detention facility just outside El Paso. The infection rate in the Chaparral population outside that facility is quite low.

The infection rate in 79938 in Far East El Paso is driven in part by the outbreak at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail. And the infection rate in 79902 in West-Central El Paso is largely a result of an outbreak at the Mountain View Health and Rehabilitation nursing home.

Some of the highest infection rates in the region are in rural areas like Tornillo and Canutillo in El Paso County and Mesquite and Anthony in Doña Ana County. Hover your cursor over a ZIP code for details.

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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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