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Commentary Coronavirus Featured

Fall COVID-19 surge derailed El Paso’s economic recovery

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We have focused on health numbers in our weekly COVID-19 data reports, but this week we want to turn our attention to economic indicators.

After a sharp loss of jobs at the outset of the pandemic in March and April, El Paso began adding jobs back at a rapid rate in late spring and through the summer. But that growth stopped as COVID-19 infections soared in the fall.

Whether El Paso can resume its economic recovery in early 2021 likely will be determined by the same factors driving health outcomes: whether El Pasoans follow guidance to avoid gatherings, wear masks, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

Jobs and unemployment claims

The number of new unemployment claims in El Paso rose in October and November, the two months with the highest number of COVID-19 infections to date.

Data from Workforce Solutions Borderplex show that new unemployment claims in El Paso decreased each month from May through September after the initial shock from the pandemic led to widespread job losses as many businesses were forced to close their doors.

But the number of new jobless claims has risen each of the last two months.

Similarly, the number of employed El Pasoans showed strong growth from May through August, then stalled. 

The increase in new jobless claims started before County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s Oct. 29 order that attempted to close some businesses in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order was largely ignored before it was struck down two weeks later by an appeals court.

Businesses are clearly suffering from public behavioral changes caused by the pandemic.

The sheer number of COVID-19 cases — more than 61,000 in October and November combined — sidelined large numbers of consumers. When people test positive, they quarantine for 10-14 days, so they’re not going to stores or restaurants or getting their hair cut. People hospitalized with the disease are sidelined as consumers even longer. Thousands more people who were exposed to people with COVID-19 also quarantined for days at a time until it was clear they weren’t infected.

Additionally, people trying to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection cut back on trips to stores and restaurants. 

Government response to COVID-19 often is described as balancing public health and economic concerns. But that is, in many ways, a misleading choice. 

Robust job growth is unlikely to occur as long as we face a serious public health threat. But that also means that the basic personal steps recommended to slow the virus spread also can serve as an economic boost.

The health picture

The number of new COVID-19 cases declined for a fourth consecutive week and is now down three-fourths from our peak the first week of November.

The key question is whether that downward trend will continue this coming week. If large numbers of El Pasoans ignored warnings against large Thanksgiving gatherings, a rise in new cases would start showing up in the next few days. If the decline continues, that would be a sign that El Pasoans heeded the warning, which would suggest they’d likely follow similar guidance over Christmas.

As cases have come down, the pressure on our hospitals has eased a bit.

The number of El Pasoans dying from COVID-19 remains shockingly high. El Paso continues to have about one COVID-19 death an hour.

The number of deaths should start declining in the coming days, reflecting the decline of infections that began about four weeks ago.

El Paso has had more than 1,600 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths, with about 1,000 of those coming since Oct. 1 and 800 coming since Nov. 1. (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.

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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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