For the second consecutive week, El Paso County reported more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases. Announced COVID-19 deaths reached a new weekly high. Cases requiring hospitalization and intensive care continue to hit record new levels.

El Paso has reported 4,179 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, more than the county had reported in the first 14 weeks of the pandemic. We’re still not seeing evidence that efforts taken at the end of June — mandatory face coverings in public and the re-closure of bars — are slowing the spread of the virus.

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

Push for more transparency on COVID-19 data

An item on Tuesday’s City Council agenda calls for discussion and possible action “to disclose to the public the daily cumulative positivity rate, daily number of tests administered, weekly reports on names of facilities and businesses that have outbreaks and clusters of COVID-19 positive cases.

The item was placed on the agenda by city Reps. Cassandra Hernandez, Peter Svarzbein and Alexsandra Annello. I have said on several occasions that the city could be more transparent on some of its COVID-19 data, particularly around testing numbers and so-called “clusters” of infection.

A key concern for me in recent weeks had been the lack of clear data on positivity rates, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. 

El Paso has published weekly cumulative data that showed the positivity rate since testing began. While cumulative rates are helpful in understanding the virus spread, a more useful measure is what is known as the “rolling seven day average” of positive cases as a percentage of all tests in that period. This is the number most governments, including the state of Texas, uses as a key metric for understanding the spread of the virus.

Perhaps because of the agenda item, El Paso officials recently began publishing a seven-day rolling positivity rate. It was 10.25 percent on Saturday, up slightly from the day before. A rate above 10 percent is considered a “warning flag” of serious community spread of the novel coronavirus.

The addition of a rolling seven-day positivity rate helps El Pasoans better understand the status of COVID-19 in our community. I would suggest the city present the data as a trend line, rather than as a one-day data point each day, so the public can more clearly see what is happening over time with the positivity rate.

The City Council on Tuesday also will discuss the city’s policy of not naming government facilities and private businesses with COVID-19 outbreaks. Many other governments regularly provide this information, which is another useful tool for public understanding of how the virus is impacting a given community.

New COVID-19 cases

El Paso County reported 2,033 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, down just slightly from the prior week but still well above levels seen before cases began spiking in late June. 

People in their 20s and 30s continue to constitute a disproportionate share of new cases each week. They accounted for 43 percent of new cases in the past week, down from about 50 percent in late June and early July.

Although the latest outbreak has been concentrated among young adults, every age group has been impacted. In fact, the number of cases among every age group has more than doubled in the past four weeks. Cases among people 50 and older, who are more vulnerable to serious and life-threatening consequences from COVID-19, are up 122 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 170 of the new cases in the past week occurred in detention facilities, nursing homes, bars, restaurants and other businesses. That’s about one of every 12 new cases. In recent weeks clusters had been accounting for one of every six new cases in the county.

Hospitalizations and deaths

El Paso announced 29 COVID-19 deaths in the past week, nine more than any previous week. El Paso now has reported 179 COVID-19 deaths.

Few if any of those people died in the past week. Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the city-county health authority,  said the 14 deaths announced on Thursday occurred between the third week of June and second week of July. He said identifying COVID-19 deaths is a labor-intensive process of reviewing medical records.

County officials announced Thursday that the medical examiner was bringing in two mobile morgues as a precaution in case COVID-19 deaths continue to grow.

The numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care units reached new highs in the past week. The numbers are likely to continue growing based on the continued high rate of new cases.

Hospitals in El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties reported 22 available ICU beds as of Friday, the lowest number since the pandemic began.

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