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Hundreds of lives depend on how El Pasoans celebrate Thanksgiving

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The number of new COVID-19 cases in El Paso County is down for a second consecutive week, but we’re still averaging more than 1,000 new cases a day, an alarming rate of spread in a community of 840,000 people.

This week will play a major role in determining whether our overwhelmed hospital system begins to see some relief by the beginning of the New Year. 

If people heed advice to avoid multi-household Thanksgiving gatherings, the number of new infections should continue to decline. If large numbers of El Pasoans go forward with traditional gatherings, we’ll see new infections start to go back up by the second week of December.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives are at stake in the decisions El Pasoans make this coming week.

New cases

The number of new El Paso County COVID-19 cases declined by 21% over the prior week. We’re down 46% from our peak the first week of November.

But this past week was also the fifth straight week where El Paso averaged more than 1,000 new infections per day. It was big news in July when the number of infections surpassed 1,000 in a week for the first time. El Pasoans have become numb to regular daily reports of new cases, but we can’t normalize these high numbers.

The recent news on COVID-19 vaccines is encouraging. El Pasoans can begin to see a return to normalcy in just a few months. But the risks until then are still high, especially for our most vulnerable residents.

More El Pasoans over age 60 have been infected with COVID-19 in the past three weeks than in the first seven months of the pandemic combined. We are well past the October number of new infections among older El Pasoans that triggered our hospital crisis.

This is why it’s so crucial that El Pasoans not gather with family and friends outside their immediate household for Thanksgiving or for Christmas and other holidays in the next few weeks. 

A risk analysis tool developed by Georgia Tech University — based on current spread in a community — indicates that when 10 El Pasoans gather together, there’s a 58% chance that someone in the group is infected with COVID-19. That means that if you have 10 people together for Thanksgiving, it’s likely that at least one person will have COVID-19 and can infect the others. If 15 people gather, the risk that someone is bringing COVID into the house goes up to 72%.

Hospitalizations

Our hospitals, particularly our intensive care units, remain well past capacity. We’ve had more than 1,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19 for 19 consecutive days as of Sunday.

These numbers won’t come down significantly any time soon because of the huge numbers of people infected in the past three weeks. But they can start to come down before Christmas if we practice basic safety measures — limit contact with people outside your household as much as possible, wear a mask when around anyone from outside your household, stay at least six feet away from anyone from outside your household, and wash your hands frequently.

Deaths

This is bleak. El Paso health officials officially report 855 deaths due to COVID-19 as of Sunday, but the true number likely is more than 1,300. It takes weeks or months for health officials to confirm a COVID-19 death. That’s why it’s better to look at a combination of confirmed deaths and the change in deaths under investigation to get a more accurate estimate of fatalities.

We’ve lost 172 El Pasoans this week, and more than 500 so far this month. The number of deaths will continue to rise in the coming weeks, because more than 48,000 El Pasoans have been infected with COVID-19 in the past five weeks. More than 8,400 of those are people over 60, those most vulnerable to complications of COVID-19.

Decisions we make over Thanksgiving, and then again during holidays in December, will determine whether the number of deaths start to decline as we move into January.

El Pasoans have made tremendous sacrifices during the pandemic. Almost all of us have been unable to hug some of our loved ones, particularly our elders. Thousands have lost jobs due to the pandemic. More than 1,000 have lost their lives, despite the sacrifices of so many. 

But we’re getting close to a time when fewer sacrifices will be required because vaccines will be widely available. A few more months of sacrifice will mean that more of our family, friends and neighbors will be with us next Thanksgiving, when we can have the most joyous celebration of thanks ever.

Cover illustration courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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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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