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Commentary Coronavirus Featured

Sharp Christmas drop in El Paso COVID-19 tests bears watching in coming weeks

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Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect updated testing numbers.

El Paso will head into 2021 with continuing high levels of COVID-19 infections, with much risk ahead until vaccines become widely available in the spring and summer.

The decline in new infections we’ve seen for several weeks continued in the past week, but El Paso continues to average about 270 new COVID-19 infections per day. Testing dropped off sharply over Christmas week, which could be cause for concern. 

The number of hospitalizations and deaths are still going down, a welcome development.

Here is our final weekly COVID-19 data report of 2020.

New cases and tests

The number of new infections was down for the seventh consecutive week. But the past week decline was about 15% from the previous week, a significantly slower rate of decrease than we’ve seen most weeks since the current infection wave crested at the beginning of November. 

However, that decline may be misleading. The number of people tested this past week was only two-thirds of the prior week’s total. Testing was at its lowest level since the beginning of October. That may suggest that a number of asymptomatic people or those with mild symptoms put off testing during Christmas week.

Trends over the next couple of weeks bear watching. If people did delay testing until after Christmas, we could see an uptick in confirmed new infections in the coming week. That would be our first increase in almost two months.

In two weeks — the first full week of 2021 — we’ll start to get some idea of whether Christmas gatherings will cause a surge in new cases.

The combination of delayed testing and Christmas gatherings would be a significant issue if it occurred. We’ll have two wait two to three weeks to know for sure.

Hospitalizations

The number of COVID-19 cases requiring treatment in hospitals and intensive care units continues to decline. We are at our lowest levels since mid-October. 

Based on a consistent decline of new infections since the peak the first week of November, El Paso should continue to see a decline in cases requiring hospital and ICU care into at least mid-January. 

The trend after mid-January will be determined by whether Christmas and New Year’s gatherings trigger a new surge in COVID-19 infections.

Deaths

The number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths in El Paso County will surpass 2,000 by the end of the year. That means that one of every 470 El Pasoans alive at the beginning of 2020 died of COVID-19.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that total deaths in El Paso will surpass 8,000 in 2020, well beyond the 5,604 in 2018, the most recent year available in CDC data and the highest ever recorded in the county.

Since 2009, the number of deaths in El Paso has increased by an average of 2.2% a year. That suggests that El Paso likely had between 5,700 and 5,800 deaths in 2019.

That would mean that the number of total deaths in El Paso grew by about 40% in 2020 compared to 2019. 

The number of COVID-19 deaths in El Paso has declined for three consecutive weeks. That decline should continue for the next few weeks, based on infection trends.

Cover photo: Workers at the COVID-19 testing site on El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus register patients as they wait in early November. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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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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