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El Paso will be first big county in Texas to reach important COVID-19 vaccine milestone

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This story has been updated with vaccine data from Sunday.

This week, El Paso will become the first urban Texas county to have at least 10% of its population over age 16 receive an initial COVID-19 vaccine.

The approaching milestone comes as new COVID-19 infections remain at a stubbornly high level and hospitals continue to treat large numbers of cases of the novel coronavirus.

Here’s our weekly data report.

Vaccines

Almost 63,000 El Pasoans had received an initial dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as of Sunday, and more than 13,000 have completed the two-shot vaccination sequence that protects against COVID-19, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The state reported that 9.8% of El Paso County residents over age 16 had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Saturday, by far the highest among Texas’ 10 most populous county and well ahead of the state average. El Paso on Sunday became the first large Texas county to report that more than 2% of its population over age 16 had received both doses of the vaccine.

El Paso, which has 2.8% of Texas’ population, accounts for 4.3% of all Texans with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 5.2% of all Texans with both doses as of Sunday.

El Paso is scheduled to receive 12,900 vaccine doses from the state this coming week. That’s up from 11,675 from this past week.

Still, that is an agonizingly slow pace. El Paso will need about 1.2 million doses to innoculate 75% of our total population, a crude estimate of the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. At the current pace, it will take almost two years to reach that level.

El Paso is dependent on vaccine allocations from the state, which in turn relies on allocations from the federal government. The Biden administration has made speeding up vaccine deliveries one of its top priorities.

The bulk of El Paso’s vaccines are being given at two hubs, a site near El Paso International Airport operated by the Fire Department, and a site at the El Paso County Coliseum operated by University Medical Center. The University of Texas at El Paso also began administering vaccines to students, faculty and staff this past week.

Vaccines remain limited to people in Phase 1A — health-care professionals and those in long-term care facilities — and Phase 1B, people 65 years of age and older and people 16 years of age and older with at least one chronic medical condition that puts them at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19.


Here’s what you need to know about COVID-19 vaccines in El Paso.


New cases

El Paso appears to have settled, for now, into a pattern of about 470 new COVID-19 infections a day. For the past three weeks, the number of new weekly cases has been in a narrow range of 3,300-3,500.

The good news is that holiday gatherings do not appear to have triggered the massive surge in cases that we saw in the fall. The bad news is that the new infections represent a high degree of community spread of COVID-19. That’s especially concerning as El Paso prepares for the arrival of a new coronavirus variant that is more infectious than previous strains.

Hospitals

The number of COVID-19 cases requiring hospital care reached its highest level since Christmas before dropping over the weekend. The number of people requiring treatment in intensive care units was consistently above 160 for the first time in 2021, though that number also dropped over the weekend.

Hospitalizations likely will stay at these high levels for at least the next couple of weeks, based on the high number of new infections we’ve seen over the past three weeks.

Deaths

The number of El Pasoans dying of COVID-19 last week was at the lowest level since October.

The decrease in deaths reflects the decline in new infections we saw the last few weeks of December. That trend has now reversed. The number of new infections in the first three weeks of 2021 is 51% higher than in the last three weeks of 2020.

Based on those infection trends, we’ll likely see deaths start to increase in February. But the number of deaths should still be well below the awful totals we saw in the fall.

Cover photo: University Medical Center is running a COVID-19 vaccination hub at the El Paso County Coliseum. Registration is required and no walk-ups are accepted. (Photo courtesy of University Medical Center)

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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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