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Why El Paso’s COVID-19 crisis is likely to get worse in coming weeks

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El Paso continues to set records for the number of COVID-19 cases, patients in hospitals, and deaths. The crisis probably will deepen in the coming weeks.

El Paso once again set a weekly high for new COVID-19 cases. More importantly, older people are making up a higher proportion of the new cases, an incredibly distressing signal.

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

Age distribution of new cases

Public health officials have said for weeks that new cases were heavily concentrated among people in their 20s and 30s, but that is changing.

People 40 and older comprise 48% of new COVID-19 cases reported so far in November, the highest proportion since the first months of the pandemic, when testing was much more limited and generally only available to people with symptoms. People over 40 made up 42% of cases in September, as the current eruption began.

This is significant because people 40 and over are far more likely than younger people to experience COVID-19 complications and require hospitalization. The lethality of the novel coronavirus also greatly increases with age.

More than one in every six new COVID-19 cases so far in November were people 60 and older, compared to one in seven in October. Those October numbers are what triggered the record hospitalizations we’re now seeing. With new cases continuing to rise — especially among older people — the crisis is likely to get much, much worse as we approach Thanksgiving and then Christmas. 

State and federal agencies have sent a huge influx of medical personnel to El Paso over the past few weeks, which has helped abate the crisis somewhat. But hospital officials worry that those resources will be redirected as the COVID-19 crisis deepens elsewhere in the United States. 

Hospitalization and ICU cases

COVID-19 hospitalizations have topped 1,000 for five straight days. The number of people requiring treatment in intensive care units is now well above 300.

COVID-19 deaths

The number of COVID-19 deaths announced this week in El Paso hit a new high.

But that understates the problem. Some of the deaths announced this week were from August, some as recently as this week, health officials said. It takes them weeks or months to confirm a COVID-19 death.

A better measure of the current fatalities probably is the weekly change in number of deaths under investigation because they’re suspected to be caused by COVID-19. Only about 4% of deaths investigated before this latest surge began in October were attributed to something other than COVID-19.

El Paso likely is experiencing 10 to 15 COVID-19 deaths a day; that number probably will rise sharply in the coming weeks.

New cases

Our current COVID-19 eruption has not yet peaked. The numbers for this past week likely are undercounted. The city already has added more than 1,000 new cases to the prior week count because the state continues to send in late reports of positive test results.

The testing positivity rate remains extraordinarily high.

Key abatement metrics

Testing and contact tracing remain important elements for slowing the spread of COVID-19. El Paso saw some slight improvement in those areas this past week, but the numbers still are well below where they need to be.

Contact tracers notify people when they have been exposed to COVID-19. Doing so quickly is important because without notification, people could unknowingly spread the virus. The percentage of such notifications made within two days continues to be dangerously low.

Quickly notifying people that they have tested positive also is important to controlling viral spread. Delayed test returns create another risk that people may unknowingly spread the virus. Most test results in El Paso are taking four or more days to come back.

Cover photo: Workers at the COVID-19 testing site on EPCC’s Valle Verde campus register patients as they wait in line. (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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