As El Paso children prepare to head back to classrooms for the first time in months, they account for one of every five new COVID-19 infections so far this month, the highest proportion since the pandemic began.
The data that El Paso schools rely on for reopening decisions is confusing and possibly flawed.
The number of new infections in El Paso topped 3,000 for a second consecutive week, further indication that Christmas and New Year’s gatherings triggered a rise in new COVID-19 cases.
Hospitalizations and deaths also ticked up, as health officials raced to vaccinate more of the population.
Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.
While new COVID-19 infections remain well below our fall peak, they are still significantly above our first wave of infections in the summer. One bit of good news is that the growth in cases since the holidays has been modest.
Although reported cases for this past week currently are 7% below prior week, that gap likely will close in coming days as the El Paso Department of Public Health gets delayed reports from state health officials.
So far in January, the age makeup of new COVID-19 cases is different from earlier in the pandemic. People 19 and younger comprise 20.1% of new infections so far this month. That’s 3.5 points higher than their proportion of cases in 2020.
The El Paso Department of Public Health recommended earlier this month that students begin returning to classrooms on Tuesday, the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
That recommendation was based on a plan developed in October by the Region 19 Education Service Center that created a color-coded scheme based on hospitalization rates.
When fewer than 20% of hospital beds in El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson County are occupied by COVID-19 patients, El Paso is considered to be in the “orange zone.” Under that designation, schools must allow students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to attend classes in person if their parents so choose.
The three-county region has been in the orange zone for a month, but just barely for much of that time. In fact, more than 20% of hospital beds in El Paso County have been occupied by COVID-19 patients for four straight days. But because the Region 19 calculation is based on what the state calls Trauma Service Area I — which includes rural Hudspeth and Culberson counties — the hospitalization rate remains in the orange zone.
To confuse matters even more, the state dashboard in recent days has shown fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations in the three-county region than what El Paso is reporting for its hospitals alone. For example, the state dashboard for Saturday reported 430 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Trauma Service Area I, 17 fewer than what El Paso County alone was reporting.
Here’s how Lara Anton, press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services, explains the discrepancy:
“The difference is likely a combination of things, including timing of when it was reported and who reported the information. DSHS posts the number reported for the previous day when it updates the dashboard in the afternoon. So, the number on our dashboard in the morning is actually the number from two days ago. There may also be differences in which types of beds are included in the counts. The number on the DSHS dashboard is the one used for the Governor’s Executive Order GA-32.”
However, El Paso’s hospital numbers have been above 430, the three-county number on the state dashboard, for the past three days.
Based on the number of infections over the past two weeks, the regional hospitalization rate is likely to surpass 20% in the coming days. At that point, school districts will have to make a decision on whether to continue with in-person instruction in elementary grades or return to virtual classes.
A report issued Jan. 13 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “recommends that K–12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”
The report found that COVID-19 infection rates were similar in counties that offered in-person learning in grades K-12 and those counties that offered only virtual education.
More than 400 people have been hospitalized in El Paso for COVID-19 for 12 of the past 13 days. The number of COVID-19 patients needing treatment in intensive care units has fallen below 140 only once since Oct. 20.
The number of people needing hospital care likely will continue to increase in the coming weeks, based on infection trends.
If El Paso hospitalizations surpass 460, it pushes the regional hospitalization rate past 20%, regardless of what is happening in Hudspeth and Culberson counties. That would place us back into the “red zone” for schools, which means schools may — but aren’t required to — restrict access to on-campus instruction.
El Paso continues to average about eight COVID-19 deaths per day, according to our estimates.
The “official” COVID-19 death toll depends on who you ask. According to the El Paso Department of Public Health, it was 1,579 as of Friday. According to the CDC, it was 1,761 as of Jan. 13. According to the state, it was 1,909 as of Friday. The actual number almost certainly is above 2,100, based on the number of confirmed and suspected deaths reported by local officials.
More than 47,000 El Pasoans received at least one of the two vaccine doses as of Saturday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The percentage of the population 16 and older receiving at least one vaccine dose is higher in El Paso than any other Texas urban county.
Cover photo by Corrie Boudreaux, El Paso Matters