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El Paso may be headed into another COVID-19 crisis

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The number of COVID-19 infections shot up sharply in El Paso County last week, likely the leading edge of a storm of new cases triggered in large part by holiday gatherings.

The number of infections requiring hospital or intensive care unit treatment increased as well, a possible harbinger of a second stress on El Paso’s health care infrastructure in recent months.

El Paso health officials face a steep challenge in the coming weeks — vaccinate as many people as possible even as hospitals begin to fill again.

One bright note is that El Paso County is vaccinating its residents at a higher rate than other large Texas counties.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

New cases

The number of new COVID-19 infections shot up by 36% from the prior week. This increase in positive tests comes two weeks after Christmas and a week after New Year’s. Health officials had warned against gatherings over the holidays, but there was widespread concern that advice wasn’t fully heeded.

We’re focusing our data visualization this week on weekly cases since the end of September, which is when the fall surge of infections began. You can see some similarity between our current trend and the trend in early October. 

We may not see the numbers we saw at the peak of the fall eruption, which occurred the first week of November. That’s because about one in eight El Pasoans has already been infected and has some degree of immunity. Also, about one in 20 El Pasoans older than 16 years has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which wasn’t available in the fall.

Hospitalizations

The COVID-19 strain on hospitals had been declining since mid-November, but that downward trend came to an end this past week. Hospital and ICU cases are rising again, though they are still well below the peak in the fall.

Hospitalizations tend to go up about two weeks after a sharp rise in new infections. So it’s likely we’ll see more than 500 people with COVID-19 hospitalized and more than 200 in ICUs by the end of the month.

Vaccines

The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations has been sluggish across the country, and El Paso is no exception. Only 29% of vaccines sent to Texas so far have been administered as of Saturday, according to data from the Texas Department of Health Services. In El Paso, about 49% of delivered vacccines have been administered. That’s better than most other Texas urban counties.

About 30,000 El Pasoans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health records. That’s almost 5% of the population above age 16, which is the highest rate among the state’s 10 most populous counties.

Deaths

Public health officials have long acknowledged that official counts of COVID-19 deaths understate the actual toll of the virus, for a variety of reasons. A better estimate of the pandemic’s toll is to look at excess deaths compared to prior years.

Newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allow for the first estimate of excess deaths in many communities. We can compare CDC’s current estimate of total deaths for 2020 to the prior two years to estimate excess deaths. 

El Paso had about 2,200 excess deaths in 2020, while neighboring Doña Ana County had about 400. (These numbers likely will increase as CDC collects more death records from counties.)

El Paso County continues to average about eight COVID-19 deaths per day, down from about 24 a day in November. Death numbers probably will continue to hold steady or decline the rest of January, then begin to increase again in February, based on current infection trends.

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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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