Mobile morgues are parked outside of the El Paso County Medical Examiner's Office on Monday. The county may need up to 10 refrigerated units to hold the bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Nine of every 10 El Pasoans who have died of COVID-19 are Hispanic, a disproportionately high rate even for a predominantly Hispanic community.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, Blacks and Hispanics have borne the brunt of COVID-19. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nationwide, Hispanics are four times as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to be hospitalized, and almost three times as likely to die.

“Race and ethnicity are risk markers for other underlying conditions that affect health, including socioeconomic status, access to health care, and exposure to the virus related to occupation, e.g., frontline, essential, and critical infrastructure workers,” the CDC says.

In El Paso County, Hispanics are far more likely to die of COVID-19 than non-Hispanic Whites and Blacks, according to CDC data.

We’ll focus our weekly data report this week on a closer look at who is dying of COVID-19 in El Paso.

Pre-pandemic death trends

To better understand the impact of COVID-19, it’s helpful to look back at deaths in El Paso before the pandemic.

Hispanics comprise about 83% of El Paso County’s population, and about 78% of the population over age 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

From 2010-18, the most recent year available, Hispanics accounted for 70% to 75% of all deaths in El Paso County, according to CDC data.

El Paso deaths have risen steadily since 2010, even though the population hasn’t grown since 2012. That’s largely a result of an aging population.

Deaths in 2020

Based on recent trends, El Paso would have expected about 6,000 deaths in 2020, absent the pandemic.

The CDC reported almost 6,800 total deaths in El Paso County between Feb. 1 and Dec. 12, including 1,358 COVID-19 deaths. The agency says that is an undercount of actual deaths because it is based on death certificates, which often aren’t produced until days or weeks after the death.

Based on historic trends, it’s likely that El Paso County had about 500 deaths in January, before the pandemic hit. The CDC data suggest that El Paso will have more than 8,000 total deaths this year, or about 2,000 more than would have been expected based on historic trends. The El Paso Department of Public Health has reported almost 1,900 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths as of Saturday.

Hispanics accounted for about three in every four non-COVID deaths in El Paso between Feb. 1 and Dec. 12, according to CDC data. That’s in line with death trends in recent years.

But Hispanics comprised nine in 10 COVID-19 deaths.

The COVID-19 death rate among El Paso Hispanics is 49% higher than the death rate for their non-Hispanic White neighbors, even though the median age for Hispanics is more than five years — or 17% — younger than the median age for non-Hispanic Whites.

Non-Hispanic Blacks in El Paso have a much lower COVID-19 death rate than Hispanics or non-Hispanic Whites, counter to the national trend. Many Blacks in El Paso have ties to the military — either active duty, dependents or retirees.

How we compare

El Paso and Hidalgo counties in Texas — both border counties with predominantly Hispanic populations — have the highest death rates of any urban counties (more than 500,000 people) west of the Mississippi River. All other urban counties among the 25 highest COVID-19 death rates are on the East Coast, which was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic, before improvements in treatments.

Hidalgo County, where McAllen is the largest city, has had 217 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents as of mid-December. El Paso’s COVID-19 death rate is 171 per 100,000 residents. Hidalgo County had one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the summer; El Paso County had one of the worst outbreaks in the fall.

After Hidalgo and El Paso counties, the highest death rate in an urban county west of the Mississippi River is Jefferson County, Colorado, with about 102 deaths per 100,000 residents. The next highest death rate in a Texas urban county is Bexar County (San Antonio), another predominantly Hispanic county, with about 80 deaths per 100,000 people — less than half El Paso’s death rate.

This past week’s El Paso County data

El Paso’s key indicators continue to decline from the November peak, although the numbers are still high.

The number of new infections in the past week fell below 3,000 for the first time since the beginning of October.

The strain on our hospital system also continues to ease. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units fell below 200 for the first time since Oct. 26. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals should fall below 500 in coming days, the first time that has happened since Oct. 16.

COVID-19 deaths continue to decline but remain frighteningly high. El Paso County has had more than 100 COVID-19 deaths for eight consecutive weeks.

As a reminder, the city’s count of confirmed COVID-19 deaths is well below the actual number of deaths because it often takes weeks to confirm such deaths. El Paso Matters estimates deaths each week by adding together the change in confirmed deaths and suspected deaths from COVID-19. That is the most accurate measure available based on data released by the city.

Cover photo: Mobile morgues are parked outside of the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office in November. The county brought in 14 refrigerated trailers to serve as mobile morgues as the COVID-19 death toll rose. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.