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El Paso begins 2021 with uncertain COVID-19 outlook

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In 2020, almost 99,000 El Paso County residents — 12% of our population — tested positive for COVID-19. More than 2,000 of our family members and neighbors died because of the novel coronavirus.

Fall was the worst, with half our infections and deaths coming in November and December. In a hopeful sign, our key indicators — new infections, hospitalizations and deaths — showed encouraging declines as December wore on.

And El Pasoans began getting vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, albeit in small numbers amid confusion to start.

But the calendar turned with some worrisome indicators. Over the last five days of 2020 and the first two days of 2021, the number of new COVID-19 infections went up by 24% over the prior week, the first increase in eight weeks. Testing dropped off over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period. Health officials will nervously watch trends over the next couple of weeks, concerned that holiday gatherings could trigger another surge in COVID-19 infections.

We’ll begin our first weekly COVID-19 data report of 2021 with a quick look back at the numbers for 2020, then look ahead at the first couple weeks of the new year.

COVID-19 infections and deaths in 2020

El Paso County reported 98,906 residents testing positive for COVID-19 as of Dec. 31. That number will go a bit higher as the El Paso Department of Public Health receives delayed reports from state health officials over the coming weeks.

The total number of COVID-19 deaths in 2020 won’t be known for a couple months, but they will surpass 2,000, based on current numbers of confirmed and suspected deaths in El Paso Department of Public Health data.

That means that one of every 420 El Paso County residents alive at the beginning of 2020 perished during the year because of COVID-19.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the pandemic pushed the total number of deaths in El Paso County past 8,000 in 2020. That’s a 40% increase over the 5,700 deaths in 2019, the highest previously recorded in El Paso. 

All but one of the U.S. urban counties with a higher per-capita COVID-19 death rate than El Paso are on the East Coast and were hit hard early in the pandemic, before improvements in therapeutic treatments were widely available.

West of the Mississippi River, the urban counties with the highest per-capita death rate were on the Texas-Mexico border — Hidalgo (McAllen) and El Paso counties.

Disproportionate impacts

COVID-19 was not evenly spread throughout our community. El Paso County ZIP codes with large proportions of low-income and working class residents generally had far higher COVID-19 infection rates. These areas tend to have residents who work in front-line jobs — such as retail, hospitality and health care — that must be done in person, rather than remotely.

The per-capita infection rate in El Paso County’s lowest-income ZIP code — 79901 in Downtown El Paso — was almost twice as high as the rate in the highest-income ZIP code, 79911 in West El Paso.

We included ZIP codes from Doña Ana and Otero counties in southern New Mexico, which border El Paso. Infection rates in El Paso County were 60% higher than in our neighboring New Mexico counties.

A variety of factors could explain the vast disparity in infection rates between El Paso and southern New Mexico. El Paso’s population density is higher, which could make it easier for viruses to spread. New Mexico generally took far more aggressive steps than Texas to limit access to bars, restaurants and stores as infections began to explode in the fall.

COVID-19 trends heading into 2021

El Paso County’s streak of seven consecutive weeks of declining COVID-19 infections came to an end in the last week of 2020. The number of new infections was 24% higher this past week than the week prior, the largest growth rate since the first week of November.

Part of the increase is likely because of something we warned about last week. The number of COVID-19 tests during Christmas week dropped sharply, while the number of new infections declined only slightly. That was an indication that asymptomatic people and those with mild symptoms may have postponed getting tested until after Christmas.

It’s too early to know whether Christmas gatherings will cause a spike in new cases. We should start to get a clearer picture on that by the middle of this coming week.

Testing over New Year’s week continued to lag rates we saw in the first three weeks of December. That could indicate that people have continued to delay getting tested until after the holiday season is complete.

(The number of tests from this past week likely will increase by a few thousand as more results come to city health officials. But the final number will be well below the 30,000+ weekly tests we saw before the holidays.)

The risk with the delayed testing is that some people were unknowingly infected with COVID-19 and took part in Christmas or New Year’s gatherings. We should know by the middle of January what kind of impact Christmas and New Year’s gatherings had on viral spread.

Hospitalizations

We continue to see encouraging trends in the number of people requiring treatment for COVID-19 in hospitals and intensive care units.

The number of El Pasoans hospitalized with COVID-19 fell below 400 for the first time in 10 weeks. 

The decline in hospital and ICU cases should continue in the coming week. What happens after that in the first few weeks of 2021 largely will be determined by whether we see a surge in new infections from Christmas and New Year’s.

Deaths

The number of estimated COVID-19 deaths in El Paso continues to decline, mirroring infection trends from the late fall. 

As a reminder, El Paso Matters estimates the number of weekly deaths by adding together the changes in confirmed and suspected deaths. The El Paso Department of Public Health often takes weeks to confirm a death as being caused by COVID-19, and the city’s death count lags well behind data from state and federal sources.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number for the total number of cases from the past week and the percentage change from the prior week. The Department of Public Health reported 2,366 cases in the past week, a 24% increase from the prior week.

Cover image by by Azmi Talib from Pixabay

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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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