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Commentary Coronavirus Featured

El Paso sees some COVID-19 improvement, but we’re still in crisis

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El Paso County’s number of new COVID-19 cases declined for a third straight week, and the number of hospitalizations has consistently stayed below 1,000 for the first time since the beginning of November. 

The trend is improving, but the COVID-19 threat remains high. Even after three weeks of declining cases, the number of new cases this week was still well above the peak of our previous wave in the summer. Hospitals, particularly intensive care units, remain strained. And the death toll continues to mount.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

New cases

It’s important that we start with a caveat on this past week’s numbers. Experts say that the numbers of new cases and deaths reported over holiday weekends tend to be understated because of reporting delays. Likewise, we often see sudden spikes following holiday weekends as data reporting catches up.

So, the number of new cases reported in El Paso this past week probably is artificially low. And we may see a spike in new reported cases and deaths early in the coming week. Don’t mistake those spikes, if they occur, for a surge in post-Thanksgiving cases. We probably won’t know for another week or two whether Thanksgiving gatherings triggered additional infections.

The number of new reported novel coronavirus infections in El Paso fell below an average of 1,000 per day for the first time in a month. The number of new infections is down by more than two-thirds from our peak in the first week of November.

The continuing decline is good news. But the new cases reported in the past week — an average of more than 600 per day — is still 65% higher than our summertime peak. We have a long, long way to go before we get back to our pre-Labor Day rate of fewer than 80 infections per day. 

And we don’t yet know the impact of Thanksgiving gatherings, and the potential for more gatherings for Christmas and New Year’s is only a few weeks away.

Hospitalizations

We’re seeing a similar situation with our hospitals. The trend is positive, but the numbers remain very, very high.

Counts of people requiring hospitalization and intensive care treatment are known as “lagging indicators,” meaning they tell us about what happened in the past with infections, not what will happen in the future. (“Leading indicators” for the future of COVID-19 include mask usage, mobility changes and social distancing compliance; those data are hard to come by at the local level.)

The decline in number of cases requiring hospitalization tracks with the decline in new cases we began seeing in the second week of November. Trends in cases requiring intensive care unit treatment lag behind hospitalizations as an indicator, and have been above 300 for 17 straight days. We could see a decline in those ICU numbers this coming week.

Deaths

El Paso has reported 1,470 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths since April, with more than 650 of those coming this month. We have been averaging a death an hour to COVID-19 in November. (El Paso Matters estimates the number of new deaths by using a formula that includes new confirmed deaths each week and the weekly change in deaths suspected of being caused by COVID-19. El Paso public health officials often take several weeks to confirm a COVID-related death, so the count of confirmed deaths seriously underestimates the number of people who have died.)

The Thanksgiving holiday may have led to a delay in reporting of new confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths. So the number of deaths this week may be understated.

Deaths are another lagging indicator for COVID-19, and we are unlikely to see a significant decline in new deaths for at least a couple more weeks. 

Studies have shown that people who die of COVID-19 do so, on average, about 13-17 days after the onset of symptoms, depending on age. It then takes an average of about three weeks after death for health officials to confirm COVID-19 as a cause. 

Most of the deaths we’ve seen in November likely are from infections first diagnosed in October. The number of infections among people age 60 and above — those most at risk of complications and death from COVID-19 — has been much higher in November than in October. 

The higher number of infections among older El Pasoans in November suggests that deaths in December could be higher than the horrifying death toll we’ve seen this month.

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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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