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El Paso’s awful COVID-19 trend may continue for a couple more weeks

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El Paso County once again shattered its weekly high for new COVID-19 cases, leading local officials to impose new measures meant to slow the spread of the disease. More than 4,000 new cases were reported this past week; El Paso County previously had never surpassed 3,000 cases in a week.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 and requiring treatment in intensive care units also reached record highs this past week. 

El Paso officials blame “covid fatigue” for the explosion of cases over the past five weeks, saying people strayed from safety precautions that have been recommended for months. Officials around the world also are citing pandemic fatigue for the rise in cases.

The new health orders aren’t as sweeping as orders issued in June as the first wave of infections hit El Paso. Restaurants are required to cease service other than takeout at 9 p.m. each night. Businesses can only have 50% of listed capacity at any time, down from 75% previously. Bars remain closed, but many bars have been able to reopen as restaurants after the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission loosened requirements for making the switch. 

In late June, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars closed and limited restaurants to 50% of capacity. El Paso’s new restrictions essentially roll restaurant capacity back to where it was in June, but more businesses previously classified as bars are now considered restaurants.

In El Paso’s first wave of infections, new cases continued to rise for two weeks after Abbott’s restrictions were implemented, peaking at almost 2,600 new cases the week of July 5-11. Weekly case counts began to decline after that and eventually dropped to about 550 cases the week of Sept. 6-12, two months after our first peak.

Then cases began to rise again and surpassed 4,000 this past week. Health officials say it probably will take about two weeks for the impact of new restrictions to show up in our weekly case numbers.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

New cases

The number of new cases reported this past week was 35% higher than the record set the previous week. The number of new cases was more than twice as high as two weeks prior and 636% higher than when this latest wave started in early September.

Our positivity rate — the percentage of all COVID-19 tests coming back positive — also continues to climb sharply. This is an indication that the numbers of new cases will continue to be high over the next couple of weeks.

COVID-19 and hospitals

The number of COVID-19 cases requiring treatment in hospitals and intensive care units hit new records this week. Based on prior history, those numbers will continue to rise until about two weeks after case numbers begin to decline. That means we’ll likely see continued increases in hospital and ICU cases until at least the end of this month.

As of Saturday, only seven ICU beds were available in the three-county region that includes El Paso, the state reported. Hospital officials have said they can adjust to add some ICU capacity.

COVID-19 deaths

El Paso reported only a handful of new COVID-19 deaths this week, but that likely is misleading. The number of suspected but unconfirmed deaths continues to rise. In August, we saw a sharp increase in deaths, in part because health officials confirmed a number of deaths from several weeks earlier. We could see a sharp spike like that in coming days.

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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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