San Jacinto Plaza is lighted for the holiday season. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

With the onset of winter and cooler weather driving many El Pasoans indoors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an infectious disease expert answers key Q:s about what people should keep in mind to protect themselves from contracting the virus. 

COVID-19 cases in El Paso have shown a promising decrease in the weeks following one of the deadliest surge of cases in the country, but health officials are still concerned there may be another spike if families gather over the upcoming holidays.

Dr. Armando Meza, chief of infectious diseases at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, answered El Paso Matters’ questions about what he has learned about COVID-19 and what the community should keep in mind during the winter months.

Q: What have you learned about COVID-19 and how the virus spreads that was not known when the pandemic reached the area in March?

Dr. Armando Meza

A: The most significant fact I did learn was how a small number of people could be a super spreader and be able to infect not only a few, but tens or hundreds of individuals instead of the two to three people we have read in the epidemiologic studies. This has led to outbreaks that otherwise had not been anticipated. We have also learned that this virus can mutate and be more infectious. 

Q: Is there a specific issue with winter that could put people at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19?

A: This virus, with an amazing capacity to pass itself from person to person, is going to make winter time much more complicated. The gathering of people in closed spaces creates an environment of transmission ideal for this virus to spread. If we add the risk of becoming infected with influenza, a disease that lowers your immune system, we can anticipate more cases of COVID-19 related virus in the community.

Q: Has treatment for COVID-19 improved since March and if so, how? If treatment methods have not improved, why not?

A: There has been a significant improvement in our knowledge of what are the factors that increase mortality. We have been able to demonstrate treatments that decrease the number of people that will die from COVID-19. We have also found other treatments that can make the hospital stay shorter for those who are severely ill. Lastly, we have found the use of premade antibodies, so-called monoclonal, to be helpful when used in the early stages of infection and before need for hospital admission.

Q: Are there activities that you think are safe for people to engage in during the winter months that are different from those over the summer?

A: We know that any activity that we will be performing has a risk based on the number of people gathering. We also know that open spaces are less likely to pass the virus due to the airflow effect. If any activity is performed at home or at work, face mask wearing, physical distancing and hand hygiene are still going to continue to be critical for adding layers of protection against the virus.

Q: Are you concerned there will be another dramatic rise in cases over the winter?

A: The risk of increases will be a factor of whether the number of susceptible individuals is already exposed and protected, compared to how many are still unexposed and unprotected. Fortunately, the latest trend has been less-severe cases despite a regular flow of new cases, but I believe this is an early sign that the curve is going to start trending in the right direction. Obviously, once the vaccine is made available to the general population and the herd immunity is achieved, that’s when we will see a big drop in the risk.

Q: Can El Paso hospitals handle another drastic spike in COVID-19 cases?

A: Hospitals have exhausted their capacity of handling patients at a significant human and financial resources cost. There will be a need for more work on both items and in an economic situation, that is not optimal for anyone. Of course hospitals will not deny care to anyone who needs it no matter how difficult that will be.

Q: At what point do you think El Paso will have safely slowed the spread of the virus?

A: The percentage of individuals with immunity in the community will have to be at least 60% of the total population in order to achieve a significant slowing of the spread of this virus. 

Q: Does getting the vaccine mean that people can stop wearing face coverings or social distancing? 

A: The vaccine will not completely prevent the risk of becoming infected, especially in the upper respiratory tract. Wearing the facemask and social distancing will continue to be required to avoid the risk of the infection localizing to our nose and our throats. This will help us to avoid passing the infection to other individuals.

Q: Do you have an estimate of time for when the community, once everyone that chooses to be vaccinated gets the vaccine, will be able to reduce the need for wearing face coverings or social distancing?

A: If the vaccine is available to the general public in the spring of 2021, the herd immunity will not be achieved until probably the summer 2021. Low levels of infection will be present during the subsequent years and I will not be surprised if wearing a facemask will become our new normal, especially during time periods when and if cases of coronavirus and influenza go up. As we know, this is something done very commonly in other (continents) such as Asia. 

Q: What is your biggest fear about where the community is when it comes to the pandemic?

A: The fear that I have is mainly related to where the general public is in terms of the acceptance of the vaccine. Without vaccines, there will not be a normal state of affairs. If misinformation is disseminated in a way that detracts people from getting vaccinated, we will be doing a great disservice to our community. However, I’m confident that when more data is reported out about the benefits and the risks of the vaccine, we will feel less concerned.

Q: What is your biggest hope when it comes to where the community is regarding the pandemic?

A: Most people learn from hard lessons. I think this has been one of the once-in-a-lifetime lessons that we all have gone through. I believe there will be a clear understanding of our vulnerability as humans and our responsibility to pay attention when a potentially existential threat arrives.

Cover photo: Festive holiday lights in San Jacinto Plaza have become a winter tradition in El Paso and continues during the pandemic. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...