It took El Paso County 100 days to record its first 4,500 COVID-19 cases. It took just 20 days to record the second 4,500 to push us over 9,000 total cases. We’re on a pace that will add another 4,500 cases in 11 days, and another 4,500 seven days after that. Unless the infection trend slows, we’ll have doubled our cases to more than 18,000 in just 18 days, and will approach 20,000 cases by the end of the month.

The region’s COVID-19 crisis deepened in the past week, with record highs in reported new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and intensive care unit cases. COVID-19 deaths, which had been declining for a couple of weeks, spiked back up.

El Paso County has not yet seen any visible impact from the most recent measures to impede spread of the novel coronavirus — face-covering orders June 22 from local government and the July 3 statewide order from Gov. Greg Abbott; and Abbott’s June 26 order closing bars and limiting restaurant seating to no more than 50 percent of capacity.

This coming week will be an important indicator as to whether those actions are affecting the spread of the virus. Early signs are dismal. El Paso reported a record 411 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday and 206 on Monday, along with new record levels of cases requiring hospitalization and intensive care.

As bad as things are in El Paso, the situation is much worse in places like Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, where new cases are overwhelming hospitals. Abbott said that he’ll consider an economic lockdown of the state if the situation doesn’t improve.

Here’s El Paso Matters’ weekly COVID-19 report.

New COVID-19 cases

El Paso County reported 2,146 new COVID-19 cases, shattering the record set a week earlier by a third. The number of cases in El Paso County has doubled in three weeks and at the current growth trend will double again — adding more than 9,000 more new cases — in 18 days. El Paso’s four highest daily counts of new COVID-19 cases occurred Wednesday through Saturday, topping 350 each day.

People in their 20s and 30s continue to represent almost half of the weekly new cases.

However, all age groups have seen shocking increases in COVID-19 case numbers in the past three weeks. Cases among people 50 and older, who are more vulnerable to serious and life-threatening complications from COVID-19, are up 83 percent since June 20.

Community spread continues to be the main factor in the explosion of new cases. The city’s weekly “clusters report” indicates that about 240 of the new cases in the past week occurred in detention facilities, health care facilities, nursing homes, bars, restaurants and other businesses. That’s just under one of every six new cases, which is similar to the recent trend.

The largest number of cluster cases is at El Paso County’s two jails, which reported 230 active COVID-19 cases among inmates and 44 cases among jail staff as of Sunday. That’s up from 174 inmates and five staff members on Monday.

Hospitalizations and deaths

The numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care units reached new highs in the past week, but the full impact of the current surge in cases probably won’t be seen for another couple weeks.

Unlike other Texas communities, El Paso has not yet overwhelmed its hospital system with COVID-19 cases. The state reported that El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties had 417 hospital beds and 35 ICU beds available as of Monday.

The only positive sign in El Paso in recent weeks has been a decline in reported deaths. But that changed in the past week as the number of reported deaths increased for the first time in three weeks. El Paso now reports 150 COVID-19 deaths.

The Department of Public Health’s statistics appear to understate the number of COVID-19 deaths, perhaps significantly. For example, the health department said 32 nursing home residents had died of the disease as of July 2, a number that climbed to 38 on July 10. But the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, using data it requires nursing homes to provide, reported 40 COVID-19 deaths in El Paso County nursing homes as of June 28.

The public health department also has reported no COVID-19 deaths among inmates or staff at detention facilities, even though KVIA-TV reported that Robert Armstrong, a nurse practitioner at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail, died June 16 of COVID-19 complications. 

Where COVID-19 is hitting hardest

Seventeen ZIP codes in El Paso and Dona Ana counties have had more than 1 percent of their population test positive for COVID-19.

The highest per-capita concentrations of COVID-19 continue to be in rural areas, ZIP codes south of Interstate 10 in El Paso, and in El Paso ZIP codes with detention facilities.

New Mexico excludes detention center cases from its county and ZIP code totals and reports separate numbers for each facility. El Paso refuses to release numbers on specific detention facilities, although they are made public by federal and state agencies. In addition to the county jails, large outbreaks have been reported at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail (251 cases among inmates and 30 among staff) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center near El Paso International Airport (133 among detainees and one among staff, not including contractors, which ICE refuses to disclose.)

Those detention center numbers inflate the infection rates in ZIP codes 79901 (Downtown jail), 79925 (ICE detention) and 79938 (county jail annex and state jail.)

ZIP codes where nursing home outbreaks have occurred also have their infection rates inflated. This includes 79902 (Mountain View Health and Rehabilitation), 79935 (Vista Hills Care Center), 79927 (St. Giles Nursing and Rehabilitation Center) and 79904 (Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home.)

Hover your cursor over a ZIP code to get more details.

Cover photo: Ciudad Juárez health officials checked the temperatures of motorists coming from El Paso over the Fourth of July weekend, an effort to slow transmission of COVID-19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.