The more contagious variant of COVID-19 will likely reach El Paso — which could send the city toward another deadly surge in cases and hospitalizations, medical experts say.

More contagious COVID-19 variants, while not proven to cause more severe illness, could increase cases of the deadly virus and further strain the health-care system.

El Paso medical experts are beginning to see a rise in COVID-19 cases from holiday gatherings and will have to monitor whether the spike is unusually high — a sign that could mean a variant has reached the area, said Dr. Armando Meza, chief of infectious diseases at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso.

COVID-19 infections in El Paso have been rising since after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, but remain below the fall surge according to an El Paso Matters analysis of El Paso Department of Public Health data.

Dr. Armando Meza

“The combination of events that can lead to wide spread of a new strain will depend on how many people are exposing other people that are susceptible, and whether those people are bringing the strain from another (area), especially, the closer they are,” Meza said. 

The new variant, first reported in the United Kingdom, has been confirmed in parts of Texas and New Mexico, but not yet in El Paso.

Meza said it is estimated that the variant is 70 percent more transmissible than prior strains, which could mean more hospitalizations based on the number of new cases that may be caused by it.

At El Paso’s highest peak of cases in early November, hospitals were overwhelmed and in some cases patients had to be flown out of the city for care.

Meza said it is not unusual for viruses to develop variants.

Until a majority of the population is vaccinated, Meza said the community has to continue to follow the same precautions such as wearing a face covering, frequent hand washing and avoiding congregate settings to protect themselves.

There is no evidence that the current vaccines that are being administered to prevent COVID-19 will not be effective against the new variant, he said.

“We have to deal with a number of people that are still susceptible to becoming infected, and the only thing that is going to change that in a way to not cause more infections is going to be the vaccine,” Meza said.

Meza said until more than half of the El Paso population is vaccinated to help establish herd immunity, the risk of contracting COVID-19 will remain an issue.

Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

El Paso Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said the state has not issued any specific guidance regarding the UK variant of SARS-CoV-2 (B.1.1.7).

“As we receive guidance, we will promptly implement specific steps to comply with state recommendations,” Ocaranza said in a statement to El Paso Matters. “The city is reinforcing our ongoing health and safety preventative recommendations which include the use of face coverings, social distancing and hygiene which are the basic preventive steps that people need to follow to avoid getting infected with COVID-19.”

Ocaranza said people who are considered at-risk need to continue to be vigilant to avoid being infected.

“Fortunately, it is still not common to find the UK variant (B.1.1.7) in the country, but this could rapidly change. We are particularly interested in large clusters of people and people with travel history to the U.K.,” Ocaranza said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 20 states have confirmed cases of the U.K. variant that was first detected in September. There is another independent variant in South Africa detected in early October that shares some mutations with the variant detected in the U.K., according to the CDC.

Early findings suggest that the variant could just as easily infect children as adults. It is still unknown whether children are more susceptible or if the increase is due to growing outbreaks or more testing, according to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

But cases among children under the age of 20 have been growing since the summer of 2020, according to a January report by the CDC.

So far in the month of January, in El Paso, people 19 and younger comprise almost 20% of new infections, which is more than 3 points higher than their proportion of cases in 2020.

The rise in cases among El Paso children comes at a time where schools have returned to in-person learning.

Dr. Glenn Fennelly, chair of the department of pediatrics with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said this means that schools and colleges must redouble efforts to test for COVID-19, and to mitigate its spread, including universal and proper mask wearing.

Dr. Glenn Fennelly

Fennelly said it is too early to draw conclusions about the variant being more transmissible in people under the age of 20.

“The CDC data suggests that young adults (18-24) may contribute more to community spread of SARS-CoV-2 infection relative to younger children,” Fennelly said, adding that the variant could be amplified in families with young adults compared to those with younger children.

Fennelly said the possibility of a more contagious variant makes it crucial to reinforce mask wearing for children ages 2 and above, hand washing, teaching children not to touch objects then touch their noses or eyes, and teaching them to sneeze or cough into their elbows to help prevent contracting or spreading the virus.

“With a more transmissible or more contagious variant, there certainly is concern. You know, unless behaviors can be changed, and we reinforce social distancing; mask wearing etc, there is the potential risk of this variant being spread in the wider community,” Fennelly said.

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...