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As COVID-19 cases explode in El Paso, prevention measures appear to have broken down

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El Paso County had its highest number yet — by far — of new weekly COVID-19 cases this past week, and explanations offered by public health officials suggest our situation may continue to deteriorate.

El Paso’s current outbreak is the second worst among Texas urban counties on a per-capita basis, trailing only Lubbock, according to data tracked by the New York Times.

The number of cases requiring hospitalization and intensive care treatment rose sharply in the past week and are approaching summer peak levels. Hospitalizations likely will continue to grow in coming weeks.

The explosion of COVID-19 cases comes as El Pasoans prepare to go to the polls for the Nov. 3 general election, with early voting starting on Tuesday. County election officials say they have taken unprecedented measures to keep the voting process safe.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

New cases

The number of new weekly COVID-19 cases surpassed 2,800 for the first time, 13% above the previous record high for weekly new cases. El Paso had never previously reported 500 new cases in a single day, but it happened three times this past week. (A note on this: delayed reports of positive cases by the state in July and August led the city to badly understate daily case counts then. It’s possible we approached or surpassed 500 cases a day once or twice in mid-July.)

El Paso’s first wave of infections peaked in July, then began to decline in August and into early September. The second wave began to rise in mid-September. We may not yet have seen the peak of this wave.

A city news release on Saturday listed these factors for the explosion of new cases:

  • Individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 are not following proper health protocol and are not isolating.
  •  Residents are continuing to host or attend house parties, social gatherings or family gatherings.
  •  Residents are not wearing face masks while out in public or around people that do not live in the same household.
  •  Individuals who have tested positive are not being cooperative with contact tracers by failing to answer their calls, provide accurate information, or do not adhere to their recommendations.

Here’s the short version of the city press release: all of the steps necessary to control the spread of COVID-19 have broken down in our community. 

Testing positivity rate

One important measure of COVID-19 spread is the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive. This past week, El Paso had its highest positivity rate since the first week of August. (NOTE: The Department of Public Health updated the positivity percentage for the week on Monday, and it was lower than the percentage posted Sunday.)

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 group

In a news release Saturday, city officials singled out people in their 20s and 30s for spreading the novel coronavirus. “Data suggest that these two age groups appear to have contracted the virus while out in public and not taking the proper safety precautions to include practicing social distancing, frequent hand washing with soap and water and wearing a face covering.”

However, the city’s data actually shows that people in their 20s and 30s comprise a lower proportion of new infections this month than in earlier stages of the pandemic.

The biggest proportional increase in infections through the first 10 days of October has been among people in their 40s. More than 17% of new COVID-19 cases so far this month have been in people in their 40s, compared to 15% from March through September.

The proportion of cases among people 19 and younger so far this month is down from September highs, but is above levels seen from March through August.

Hospitalization and ICU cases

The number of people with COVID-19 who required care in hospitals and intensive care units continued to rise this week and is at the highest levels since early August. (NOTE: New hospitalization numbers released Monday showed COVID-19 hospitalizations nearing their July peak.)

History suggests that the number of cases requiring hospital and ICU care will continue to grow in the coming weeks. In the first wave of infections, the number of new reported cases peaked in early July and hospital numbers peaked about two weeks later.

Deaths

El Paso continues to report fewer COVID-19 deaths than in July and August. Therapeutics have improved as the pandemic has progressed, and older people — who are more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 — comprise a smaller percentage of new cases in El Paso.

However, the number of deaths under investigation because they’re suspected to be COVID-related continues to increase and now stands at more than 100. 

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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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