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El Paso hits COVID-19 milestones, waits to see impact of end of restrictions

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El Paso hit a series of COVID-19 milestones — both encouraging and tragic — in the week that Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he was ending most COVID-19 restrictions in the state

The number of hospitalizations and new cases dropped to levels not seen in five or six months. More than one in five El Pasoans 16 and older have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. But El Paso’s death toll for COVID-19 surpassed 2,500, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joining a small group of counties that have reached this grim milestone.

Here is our weekly COVID-19 data report.

New cases

El Paso County continued a downward trend in new COVID-19 cases that began at the beginning of the year. The number of new cases was the lowest since late September, when El Paso went into its devastating fall COVID-19 surge.

The decrease has come while Texas had a mask mandate and limited capacity at many businesses. Those restrictions go away on Wednesday under Abbott’s new executive order.

Critics have decried the order as coming too soon, with COVID-19 cases still at relatively high levels. El Paso, for example, had more new COVID-19 cases this past week than it did in the week preceding Abbott’s July 2 order enacting a mask mandate. Abbott, who has faced intense criticism from some fellow Republicans for implementing the mask restriction and capacity requirements, said Texans “no longer need government running our lives.” 

The CDC classifies the level of community spread of COVID-19 as “high” for El Paso and most other Texas counties. The health agency — and most infectious disease experts — continues to advise that people wear masks in public and practice social distancing and other prevention measures.

Texas infection rates will be closely watched in the coming weeks to see if dropping restrictions creates a new surge of infections.

Hospital and ICU cases

The number of people with COVID-19 who required treatment in hospitals and intensive care units also continues to decline, dropping to levels not seen since mid-October. 

Hospital cases generally follow trends in new cases, so the number of people treated for COVID-19 in hospitals should continue to decline over the next couple of weeks. The number of people treated in ICU tends to decline more slowly because of the time it takes to treat the most serious COVID-19 cases.

Deaths

El Paso County had 2,543 COVID-19 deaths as of Feb. 27, the CDC reported this past week, becoming the 26th U.S. county to surpass 2,500 deaths. Only one of those counties — Essex County in New Jersey — has a smaller population than El Paso.

El Paso County’s COVID-19 death rate — 303 deaths per 100,000 residents — is similar to death rates in counties in the New York City metropolitan area, which was devastated by the nation’s first wave of novel coronavirus infections in the spring.

Hispanics have suffered a disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths in El Paso County. Whenever I point out this fact, I hear something like, “Of course, most of El Paso is Hispanic.” But El Paso Hispanics are being killed by this virus at a rate far higher than their share of our population. They comprise a far higher proportion of COVID-19 deaths than deaths from other causes.

As new infections have gone down through the first two months of the year, so have weekly COVID-19 deaths. Our weekly death toll is now back to where it was just as the fall surge began tearing through El Paso. But we still continue to lose an El Pasoan every six hours to this disease.

Vaccinations

El Paso will see a huge increase in COVID-19 vaccination first doses coming from the state this week. More than 24,000 first doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccine are scheduled to arrive this week, 34% more than in any previous week.

More than 11,000 first doses are going to 48 providers outside the hubs run by the city and University Medical Center, which up to now have provided the vast majority of vaccines administered in El Paso County.

Many of these providers are community health centers and private medical practices in medically underserved parts of the community. This may help in closing huge disparities in vaccinations that Molly Smith recently identified

This only counts vaccines provided to El Paso by the state. A much smaller number of vaccines are provided directly by the federal government to pharmacies and other health-care providers.

Almost 147,000 El Pasoans had received at least one vaccine dose, according to state data published on Saturday, with more than 88,000 residents receiving both doses. That means that more than one in five county residents over age 16 have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and about one in seven have received both doses. 

Among Texas’ 10 most populous counties, El Paso continues to have the highest proportion of residents 16 and over with at least one vaccine dose. Fort Bend County in the Houston area has surpassed El Paso in percentage of population with both doses.

Cover photo: A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 at The Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

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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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