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Weekly El Paso COVID-19 data report: All indicators are bad

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El Paso had one of its worst weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with a high in reported deaths, hospitalizations beginning to rise after more than two weeks of decline, and the number of new reported cases remaining stubbornly high.

New cases

El Paso had 540 new COVID-19 cases reported this week, including 162 on Saturday, our second-highest one day total. Public health officials said there was no cluster of cases that would explain the Saturday spike.

For some reason, El Paso health officials remain fixated on holidays as a explanation for an increase in cases — first Easter, then Mother’s Day, then Memorial Day. “Once all investigations are completed staff will be able to determine if this spike might be due to Memorial Day,” according to a city press release Saturday.

The city press release came 26 days after Memorial Day. The incubation period for COVID-19 is no more than 14 days, except in rare cases.

The cause for the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases is pretty obvious. El Paso’s COVID-19 cases began rising sharply the first week of May. Texas began re-opening its economy May 1 and has expanded allowable activity in the weeks since.

Policymakers knew the reopening decisions would lead to an increase in cases. They also knew the economic lockdown that began in March to slow the spread of COVID-19 wasn’t sustainable.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week allowed local governments to implement face-covering requirements, something he had previously blocked. His decision allows local governments to require businesses to mandate face-coverings for their employees and customers. El Paso’s city and county governments issued such an order Thursday and it takes effect Monday.

We’ll be watching to see if the face-covering requirement impacts the number of new cases in coming weeks.

One other note on the numbers. The city is now including reported COVID-19 cases at the detention center run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They previously excluded those cases.  ICE reported 93 cases among detainees at its El Paso Processing Center as of Thursday. That’s up from 30 in late May.

Officials never announced the data change. I noticed a sharp rise since late May in the 79925 ZIP code, where the ICE detention facility is located. That made me suspect the city had begun including the ICE detainee numbers and the city confirmed my hunch after I asked. I’m still not sure when the city began including the ICE numbers in its daily tracking.

It’s a good thing the city is including the ICE numbers. But health officials should be more transparent when they alter the way they report data.

Deaths and hospitalizations

El Paso reported 20 new COVID-19 deaths last week, bringing the total to 120. That matches the previous high for new reported deaths. It’s important to note that these aren’t necessarily people who died last week; confirmation of COVID-19 as a cause of death sometimes takes days or weeks.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations began rising on Tuesday after declining from their late May peak. The rise in new cases this week suggests we may see a new high in hospitalizations over the next couple of weeks.

Testing rates

El Paso and the state of Texas were slow to start widespread COVID-19 testing and continue to lag the national rate. The testing rate in neighboring New Mexico is at least twice that of El Paso.

A couple of reminders:

These are numbers of reported tests, not numbers of people tested. People can receive multiple tests. People who test positive often receive numerous follow-up tests until they receive two consecutive negative tests to be declared recovered.

We report two numbers for El Paso because the Department of Public Health’s “estimate” is significantly higher than the number of tests the state reports for El Paso.

Rural areas hardest hit

COVID-19 cases aren’t evenly distributed in our region. It’s increasingly clear that rural areas are being hit hardest.

The highest per-capita infection rates in El Paso and Doña Ana counties are in rural ZIP codes: Berino, Hatch and Mesquite in Doña Ana County and Canutillo in El Paso County.

The highest infection rate in an urban ZIP code is in 79903 in Central El Paso.

Hover your cursor over a ZIP code for more details.

A note on the ZIP code data. New Mexico has begun reporting infections at detention facilities separately from ZIP code totals. The state previously had disaggregated detention numbers from county totals. They made the change after I raised a question about including large numbers from a private prison complex near Chaparral in the 88081 ZIP code report. That facility, which has a capacity for 2,000 inmates and detainees, has reported 792 cases.

El Paso includes detention facility numbers in individual ZIP codes. That reporting practice primarily impacts the 79938 ZIP code in Far East El Paso, which includes up to 272 inmates at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail, and 79925 in East El Paso, which includes up to 93 cases at ICE’s El Paso Processing Center.

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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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