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Commentary Coronavirus

El Paso’s COVID-19 crisis probably isn’t easing anytime soon

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El Paso continues to be overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis. We had more than 25,000 new cases in October, more than all the earlier months of the pandemic combined. 

While much public attention has been focused on new cases, active cases and hospitalizations, little notice is made of three indicators that tell us a lot about the immediate future of the pandemic. And those three indicators suggest we are not in for a substantial improvement over the next few weeks.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

Testing, tracing and enforcement

Three keys to slowing the spread of COVID-19 are effective testing , contact tracing, and enforcement of public health orders. 

Testing needs to be readily available, with results returned quickly so those testing positive can isolate themselves from others. El Paso has widespread testing, but the results are not coming back in a timely manner.

The city tracks how many people learn their results within 72 hours of being tested. That’s been happening less than a third of the time in El Paso.

When people test positive, they should quickly be called by a contact tracer. Anyone who has had contact with the COVID-19 positive person in recent days should then be notified within 48 hours so they can isolate and get tested. The current situation is a catastrophe, with almost all notifications delayed past 48 hours, allowing potentially infected people to unknowingly spread the virus further.

Since March, El Paso has had health orders in place to minimize pandemic spread. Those orders have varied over time, but they include face-covering requirements, social distancing in public spaces and capacity limits in stores and restaurants. 

City leaders decided in May to essentially stop enforcing the health orders, opting instead to educate violators about the rules. That decision may be the most disastrous step taken during the pandemic, leaving no consequences for violating those health orders. By the time the city resumed small levels of enforcement over Labor Day weekend, it was too late.

Even now, few citations are issued, and enforcement generally has been limited to weekends. Citations were issued on Oct. 16 to “Bart Simpson,” and on Oct. 22 to “Joe Schmo,” according to a city spreadsheet. The citations involve failure to quarantine, so officials may have been trying to protect medical confidentiality. But the choice of pseudonyms is … interesting.

A spreadsheet of health order citations maintained by the cities lists two of the people cited as Bart Simpson and Joe Schmo.

New cases, positivity rate

El Paso reported almost 10,000 new cases in the past week. We have set records for new cases each of the last four weeks. This week’s total is almost four times higher than our previous peak in July.

El Paso’s positivity rate — the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive — also is at an all-time high. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations

The number of El Pasoans requiring hospitalization and intensive care for COVID-19 hit all-time highs this past week. 

COVID-19 deaths

El Paso surpassed 600 COVID-19 deaths this past week. The true count is much higher because of 222 deaths suspected to be COVID-related that aren’t yet included in the count.

El Paso almost certainly will end the year with more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths.

New cases by age

Mayor Dee Margo and other city leaders have blamed this month’s COVID-19 outbreak on people in their 20s and 30s engaging in risky behaviors (though the city has done little to enforce orders meant to curb risky behaviors.)

But that age cohort’s proportion of new cases is at its lowest level since the pandemic began. The proportion of infections among children continues to be much higher than earlier in the pandemic, while the proportion of cases among El Pasoans 40 and older ticked back up in October after declining previously.

Cover photo: An El Pasoan gets a COVID-19 test at UTEP. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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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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