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COVID-19 is exploding in El Paso — again

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El Paso County’s COVID-19 situation is deteriorating, with new cases and hospitalization counts pushing upwards to levels we saw as we entered the summer eruption.

The virus continues to hit El Paso children harder than it did earlier in the pandemic. The testing positivity rate skyrocketed in the past week.

Although the number of new COVID-19 deaths reported was the lowest in weeks, the number of deaths under investigation is back up to nearly 100, a likely sign that death reports will grow in coming weeks.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report

New cases

The number of new COVID-19 cases increased for the third consecutive week and was twice as high as the total two from weeks prior. The last time weekly new case counts doubled in two weeks came in late June/early July and portended the awful summer wave in El Paso.

The keys to slowing the growth of COVID-19 remain the same. Wear face coverings in public. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands frequently.

This past week’s events in Washington have once again made clear the cost of ignoring safety advice. Basic safety steps, such as mask wearing, continue to be politicized in the United States in a way that is unique in the world.

On Thursday, President Trump tested positive and El Paso recorded its highest single-day count of new COVID-19 cases since July. That same day, El Paso’s Republican congressional candidate, Irene Armendariz-Jackson, took to Twitter to post pictures of her flouting safety recommendations. She regularly posts such pictures and criticizes Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, for steps he’s taken to curb the spread of COVID-19.

El Pasoans have shown that we can slow the spread of this virus. We were on a promising trend just a month ago. We can get back there by taking simple precautions. This is a health issue, not a political one. 

Positivity rate

El Paso’s testing positivity rate — the number of positive tests divided by the number of total tests — shot up dramatically in the past week.

El Paso’s positivity rate has only been this high once before since widespread COVID-19 testing became available in May. That was July 5-11, the peak week of the summer COVID-19 wave.

The World Health Organization recommends that economies not reopen until positivity rates have been 5 percent or lower for 14 consecutive days. El Paso has never met that standard, and most U.S. states have ignored the recommendation.

Infections by age

Three days into October data, we’re seeing a continuation of the trend that began in mid-September. People under age 19 are accounting for higher proportions of new infections than earlier in the pandemic.

El Paso Independent School District pushed back by a week its phased return to classrooms for students. They’ll now start returning on Oct. 26.  Ysleta ISD pushed back plans for teachers to return to campuses and reversed an earlier decision to allow limited numbers of spectators at sporting events. Socorro ISD’s plan still calls for teachers to return to campus on Monday and students on Oct. 19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for reopening schools say the “highest risk of transmission in schools” comes when the number of new cases over the past 14 days per 100,000 people exceeds 200. El Paso’s current rate is 358 infections per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, 79 percent higher than the CDC’s “highest risk” threshold.

The CDC also says a community is at “highest risk of transmission in schools” when the positivity rate over the previous two weeks was 10 percent or higher. El Paso’s positivity rate the past two weeks has been 9.9 percent, a level the CDC says places El Paso at “higher risk of transmission in schools.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations

The number of El Pasoans with COVID-19 who require hospitalization or intensive care unit treatment continues to rise. The numbers now are similar to early July, when El Paso’s first infection wave took hold, and mid-August, as El Paso began coming out of that first wave. 

COVID-19 deaths

El Paso reported its fewest number of deaths since early July, which is a welcome sign. But don’t read too much into that.

Deaths are what is known as a “lagging indicator,” meaning it’s a data point that confirms past trends rather than predicting the future. Because it usually takes several weeks for people to get sick and succumb to COVID, the decline in deaths is a reflection of what was happening with the virus from late August until mid-September. That’s when numbers of new infections were declining. They’re now rapidly increasing. 

Also, it often takes weeks or months for health officials to confirm that a death was linked to COVID-19. As of Saturday, health officials have reported 530 confirmed deaths and 98 suspected deaths still under investigation. Only about 4 percent of suspected COVID-19 deaths so far in El Paso were later determined to not be due to the novel coronavirus.

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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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