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As El Paso children prepare to return to school, they are making up a larger proportion of new COVID-19 cases

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Almost 15 percent of El Paso’s COVID-19 cases reported in August have been among people age 19 and younger, the highest proportion since the pandemic began, an El Paso Matters analysis of Department of Public Health data shows

As with all age groups, the numbers of new cases in children have grown substantially since the beginning of July. Except for a dip the week of July 25-Aug. 1, El Paso has seen more than 230 new weekly COVID-19 cases in people 19 and younger since the 4th of July. Between March and June, El Paso averaged 37 cases a week among people in that age group.

Children have been representing a greater proportion of El Paso COVID-19 cases as the pandemic has proceeded. In the early days from March through June, one in every 11 COVID-19 cases was among people 19 and younger. In July, when El Paso experienced a surge of new cases, one in every nine new infections was in that age group. So far in August, people 19 and younger account for one of every seven COVID-19 cases in El Paso.

People 19 and under make up about 30 percent of El Paso County’s population, so the novel coronavirus still is affecting them at a disproportionately lower rate than other age groups. Part of that likely is because their main gathering spots — classrooms — have been shuttered since mid-March. The increasing impact of COVID-19 on children comes as schools prepare to re-open. 

Most El Paso County school districts resume classes on Aug. 17, but those will all be by distance learning for at least two weeks. An El Paso public health order prohibits any children from returning to classrooms for face-to-face instruction until Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day. the Ysleta Independent School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously Friday to seek a waiver from the Texas Education Agency to provide online-only instruction for up though the first eight weeks of the school year if COVID-19 numbers remain high in El Paso.

If the current trends continue over this month, school officials will face difficult decisions amid pressure from some state and federal officials to return children to classrooms. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said that public health authorities cannot order schools closed, leaving that decision to leadership of school districts and private schools.

Other worrisome signs

In addition to the growth of COVID-19 cases in children, El Paso’s saw other concerning COVID-19 data in the past week.

After three weeks of decline, new COVID-19 cases jumped back up again this past week. The number of new cases is rising even as testing has leveled off or declined. As a result, an important measure known as the positivity rate ended the week at levels not seen since April.

Some lagging COVID-19 indicators showed positive signs. Hospitalization numbers continue to come down from the highs of late July but are still well above pre-July levels. Newly reported deaths also declined this week.

Here’s your weekly COVID-19 data report for El Paso.

New cases

Newly reported cases in El Paso jumped by 13 percent in the past week compared to the week prior. We have had six consecutive weeks of more than 1,400 new COVID-19 cases. Before late June, we had not surpassed 600 cases per week.

Testing and positivity

The El Paso Department of Public Health makes it difficult to track precise numbers of tests each week, instead providing a rate of tests per 100,000. Here’s the most recent chart provided on the city’s dashboard, which is current as of the week ending Aug. 1.

This chart is hard to read, but it contains some important information. I’ll walk you through it. The Department of Public Health likely will update the chart on Monday with numbers from the past week, but we can use some known data to make informed estimates.

The yellow bars are a measure of the number of tests administered each week. Instead of just saying how many tests were administered, the Department of Public Health creates a calculation of average daily tests per 100,000 people. That’s useful when comparing to other locations, but not so much when we just want to see how many people are being tested  in El Paso. 

The chart lacks a legend explaining what the numbers above the yellow bars represent, but they appear to show the average daily tests per 100,000 people for that week. Because El Paso County has about 840,000 residents, you can multiply each number above the yellow bar by 8.4 to get an estimate of the average daily tests that week. Then multiply that number by seven (the number of days in a week) to get an estimate of the number of total tests for the week.

(I agree with you; the local government shouldn’t make us do all this math to figure out how many tests were done in a given week.)

The number of tests administered in El Paso County peaked in the week ending July 18 (identified as week 29 on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calendar for tracking reportable diseases.) The rate on the chart translates to about 21,000 tests administered that week. Over the following two weeks, the number of tests dropped to about 16,000 and 15,000, respectively.

The black line on the chart is the seven-day rolling positivity rate. It’s a calculation of all the tests conducted in the prior seven days divided by the number of positive tests. It’s a measure that’s tracked closely by public health officials and policy makers. The World Health Organization has said that countries that locked down economies to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, and who have widespread testing, shouldn’t reopen until the positivity rate was below 5 percent for 14 days. (Most states in the U.S., including Texas, have ignored this standard.)

You can see from the city’s chart that El Paso’s positivity rate reached 5 percent at the end of May but has never dropped below it. 

The rolling seven day average positivity rate as of Saturday was 12.02 percent, a rate we haven’t seen since April, when testing was largely restricted to people showing COVID-19 symptoms. Our positivity rate is concerning. By comparison, the rolling seven-day positivity rate nationwide is 7.5 percent; in Texas it’s 16.79 percent.

Using the 12.02 percent positivity rate and the 1,630 new cases this week, we can estimate that El Paso had about 13,600 COVID-19 tests in the past week, continuing the decline in testing we’ve seen since mid-July.

COVID-19 deaths

The number of newly reported deaths in El Paso fell for the first time in a month this past week.

It often takes public health officials several weeks to confirm a death as COVID-19 related.

Hospitalization and ICU numbers

The number of COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization or intensive care unit treatment declined in the past week. That’s in line with the steady decline in the number of new cases in prior weeks. However, numbers could start going back up again if the increase in new cases seen this past week continues in coming weeks.

Hospitalization and ICU numbers remain well above what we’d seen prior to July.

Cover photo: Dowell Elementary School Principal Yeni Ontiveros high-fived students on April 18, 2019. (Leonel Monroy/El Paso Independent School District)

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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