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El Paso COVID-19 spread remains at stubbornly high levels

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COVID-19 continues to spread through El Paso County — which has the second-highest infection rate and 10th-highest death rate among U.S. urban centers — at a dangerously high level. We have had more than 3,300 new weekly infections for four straight weeks, the first time that’s happened since November.

COVID-19 deaths reached their highest levels in five weeks, and the number of novel coronavirus cases requiring intensive care remains stubbornly high.

El Paso continues to lead the state in getting vaccines into the arms of residents, but we have no way of knowing whether those shots are getting to the people who need them most.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data update.

New cases

El Paso County has been stuck at 3,300 to 3,500 new weekly cases in January. While that’s below the awful peak we experienced in October and November, it is higher than at any other time during the pandemic.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, El Paso has had about 13,376 known COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents since the start of the pandemic. That is the second-highest rate — behind only Miami-Dade County in Florida — among the nation’s urban counties with more than 500,000 residents.

The continuing high level of community spread is particularly worrisome as new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 fan out across the globe. If one or more of those variants shows up in El Paso while we have high rates of community spread, the number of infections could spike dramatically.

The steps we can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 remain the same: Limit contact with people outside your home. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands frequently. Wear a mask.

Because of the spread of more infectious variants, scientists are encouraging people to wear two masks while in public, or switch to a higher grade of mask.

Vaccinations

The percentage of El Pasoans with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is almost 50% higher than the statewide number. We continue to have the highest vaccination rate of any large Texas county, with 11.8% of our population age 16 and older receiving at least one vaccine dose.

More than 78,000 El Pasoans have now received at least one dose of vaccine as of Sunday; almost 19,000 have received both doses.

While our comparatively high vaccination rate is good news, we don’t know whether those doses are getting to the people who need them most, as Molly Smith has reported in recent days.

The primary way of determining who gets vaccines at the two major hubs — online registration — raises equity issues around age, internet access, transportation availability and ability to speak English, Smith reported.

Additionally, the two vaccine providers at the hubs that provide the bulk of vaccines — the city government and University Medical Center — have not been reporting race and ethnicity data, Smith reported.

Hispanics in El Paso comprised 92% of infections and 89% of deaths in El Paso, even though they make up 82% of the population. Without race and ethnicity data, there’s no way policy makers and the community can know whether vaccines are reaching the most vulnerable. The state reiterated this past week that vaccine providers must capture and report race and ethnicity data.

The main challenge to getting people vaccinated remains getting doses to local communities.

El Paso will receive 15,050 doses this coming week, up from 12,900 last week. The UMC hub at the El Paso County Coliseum will get 8,775 doses and the city hub by the airport will get 5,000. UTEP will get 975 doses for faculty, staff and students. Montana Vista Community Partnership will receive 100 doses and Project Vida Nafzger Health Clinic 200.

The city’s waiting list for people eligible for Phase 1A and Phase 1B vaccines is 160,000. The city has received 5,000 doses a week for several weeks. At that rate, it will take until September to vaccinate everyone on the waiting list, assuming no one else joins. And that’s before we can begin vaccinating the majority of the population, which doesn’t qualify under the two current phases.


What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine in El Paso


Deaths

The number of people dying of COVID-19 in El Paso surpassed 60 in a week for the first time since Christmas.

The rise in deaths was expected because the sharp increase in infections began four weeks prior. We will probably see a similar number of deaths in coming weeks.

A reminder of how El Paso Matters estimates COVID-19 deaths each week. The El Paso Department of Public Health is much slower than most other health agencies in classifying deaths as being caused by COVID-19. That process often takes months. So we add together the changes in confirmed and suspected deaths reported by the Department of Public Health each week, because the vast majority of deaths suspected to be caused by COVID-19 wind up being confirmed.

The Department of Public Health reports 1,692 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 543 suspected deaths in El Paso County through Saturday. The Texas Department of State Health Services reports 2,102 COVID-19 deaths in El Paso as of Saturday. 

According to the CDC, El Paso County has had about 250 COVID-19 deaths for every 100,000 residents, the 10th-highest rate among the 140 counties with more than 500,000 people. The nine counties with higher death rates are in New York and New Jersey, which was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic.

Among the 140 U.S. counties with more than 500,000 residents, El Paso is the only one to rank in the top 10 for both per capita COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Hospitals

The number of COVID-19 infections requiring treatment in hospitals or intensive care units has been relatively stable for much of January, though at high levels.

Since Jan.15, hospital cases have fluctuated between 422 and 458 daily, while ICU cases have been in the 145-168 range.

Because hospitalization rates lag infections by a couple of weeks, we’ll likely see similar numbers for the next few weeks.

This story has been updated with vaccination information as of Jan. 31.

Cover photo: People received COVID-19 vaccines Jan. 19 at the El Paso County Coliseum. (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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