In the year since the first COVID-19 case was detected in El Paso, an argument can be made that we have been more devastated by the pandemic than any other urban county in the United States.
El Paso reported its first COVID-19 case on March 13, 2020. As of Saturday, almost 127,000 El Pasoans had tested positive for the novel coronavirus — more than one of every seven residents.
Though counts of death vary by source, it’s certain that more than 2,500 El Pasoans have died of COVID-19 in the past year. That means that one in every 256 El Pasoans over the age of 16 who were alive this time a year ago has succumbed to COVID-19.
For this week’s COVID-19 data report, we’ll look at how El Paso has suffered over the past year, then look at the current situation.
The past year
El Paso has had more than 15,000 COVID-19 infections for every 100,000 residents since the pandemic began. Only one other county with more than 500,000 people — Miami-Dade in Florida — has had a higher infection rate in that time.
El Paso’s COVID-19 death rate during the pandemic — 290 deaths for every 100,000 residents — is the 10th highest among counties with more than 500,000 residents. All of the counties with higher death rates are on the East Coast and were hit by the first infection wave in the late winter and early spring of 2020, before the advent of more effective treatments for COVID-19.
According to data maintained by USAFacts.org, more than three-fourths of El Paso’s COVID-19 deaths came after Oct. 1, seven months into the pandemic and after the development of improved therapeutic treatments.
One reason for El Paso’s high death rate is the lethality of COVID-19 among people under age 65. Nationwide, people under age 65 accounted for 19% of all COVID-19 deaths. In El Paso County, about 30% of such deaths were among people under 65.
Researchers warned in June 2020 that El Paso was dangerously susceptible to a COVID-19 outbreak in the fall. The research was led by Ernesto Castañeda Tinoco, associate professor of sociology at American University in Washington, D.C.
El Paso’s high rates of chronic health conditions and people without health insurance put the community at huge risk, Castañeda and his colleagues wrote. They also pointed to a high proportion of frontline workers in El Paso who could only work in person, regularly exposing them to the virus. The paper built off research they had done into El Paso health issues in 2011.
“With rising rates of infection and the resignation of the city’s Public Health Director, El Paso and the surrounding region must take proactive precautions to suppress the spread of the virus and provide assistance to vulnerable individuals,” the researchers wrote in a preprint — meaning research that hasn’t been peer reviewed — for the National Institutes of Health.
Instead of taking proactive steps to slow the spread of the virus, El Paso stopped enforcing its own public health orders just before the paper was published and took seven months to hire a permanent public health director. Gov. Greg Abbott stripped local communities of the ability to adopt COVID-19 restrictions tailored to their needs. The researchers warnings proved tragically prescient.
Since July 1, El Paso County has had the highest COVID-19 death rate among all U.S. counties with more than 500,000 people. Second is Hidalgo County, also on the Texas-Mexico border. The death rates since July 1 in those two border counties are at least 30% higher than any other large urban U.S. county.
Deeply embedded structural issues made El Paso County, Hidalgo County and other communities of color vulnerable to the pandemic, the American University researchers warned.
“Structural inequalities incurred by institutional racism have created, and continue to create, underlying medical conditions and enable increased exposure to the virus, which puts Black and Hispanic citizens in far more vulnerable positions regarding COVID-19 than their white counterparts,” the researchers said. “When assessing both preventative and recovery measures, policymakers and public health officials should consider pre-existing health disparities and their heightened likelihood of working essential or frontline jobs.”
Borderland COVID-19 timeline
New weekly cases
The number of new COVID-19 cases continued to decline in the past week. El Paso is recording fewer than 200 new cases a day on average for the first time since the beginning of fall.
Although declining, the number of new cases represents a dangerously high level of community spread. The New York Times COVID-19 tracker puts El Paso at the “extremely high risk” level.
Note: the above chart has been adjusted to include updated weekly numbers provided by the city on Monday.
The number of people requiring treatment for COVID-19 in hospitals and intensive care units continues to decline and is now at low levels last seen in October, at the outset of our fall surge.
The number of El Pasoans dying of COVID-19 has inched back to the levels we were seeing at the beginning of October, just before the sharp rise in deaths as the coronavirus tore through El Paso.
More than 102,000 El Pasoans had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Saturday, or one in six residents age 16 and older. More than 175,000 El Pasoans have received at least one vaccine dose.
El Paso continues to vaccinate a higher rate of its population than other large Texas counties.
However, El Paso is in the middle of the pack when it comes to vaccinating those most at risk of serious complications or death from COVID-19 — people 65 or older. Just over 34,000 El Paso seniors have been fully vaccinated, less than a third of the 65-plus population.
El Paso continues to have other equity concerns with vaccines.
Among El Paso vaccine recipients for whom race can be determined, fewer than 1% are Black, even though Blacks make up 4% of our population. Many Blacks in El Paso have ties to the military and may have received vaccinations at federal facilities that aren’t tracked in the state data. But more targeted outreach likely is needed to get more Black El Pasoans vaccinated.
Also, only 41% of El Paso vaccine recipients so far have been men, even though they make up 48% of the population. Nationwide, men comprise 43% of vaccine recipients.
El Paso is scheduled to receive about 18,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine this week, down from this past week.
Cover photo: Desiree Morales, 2, blows a kiss to a photo of her father, Daniel, who passed away from COVID-19 in August. Her mother, Erika, asked her two older children to help keep their father’s memory alive for their youngest sister. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)