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Study finds COVID-19 antibodies in 29% of El Pasoans

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Nearly a third of El Pasoans surveyed have coronavirus antibodies, according to preliminary study results released Monday — the highest rate of the six parts of the state studied.

Twenty-nine percent of residents surveyed in El Paso’s trauma service area, which includes El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties, have antibodies indicating a recent coronavirus infection. The Dallas and San Antonio areas followed with 27% and 26% of residents testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

The findings suggest that almost 240,000 people have been infected with the novel coronavirus in El Paso County, almost double the 127,000 positive tests reported by public health officials. Scientists have long said official totals understate the actual spread of the virus because people with no or few symptoms often don’t get tested.

Between 14% and 24% of Texans have antibodies, researchers with the Texas Department of State Health Services and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston estimate based on nearly 7,000 patient surveys and 78,500 blood samples analyzed since September.

“This is definitely one piece of the puzzle in trying to understand herd immunity,” said Kristina Mena, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health El Paso campus. “As more people become vaccinated, and we have those numbers, that will be another piece for us to estimate when enough people have become immune and how will that impact the likelihood of transmission in the state and within the different communities.”

The findings indicate far more asymptomatic and undiagnosed cases than reported in the official counts.

About 15% of El Paso County’s population has contracted COVID-19 since last March, according to El Paso Department of Public Health data. Statewide, 8% of the population has tested positive, DSHS figures show.

Preliminary study data reveals a higher prevalence of antibodies in children than in adults. About 30% of children ages 5 to 19 have antibodies, the study found. Most children were asymptomatic.

“I think that a lot of the community transmission that occurred in El Paso and elsewhere is actually due to drivers within the home that are hard to mitigate,” Mena said. “I think household transmission often drives community transmission, as opposed to businesses, for example.”

The data also indicates that 27% of the state’s Hispanic population have antibodies. Race and ethnicity data on other study participants wasn’t immediately available.

The study “will provide valuable information to enable Texas to formulate public health strategies that will ultimately defeat the pandemic,” DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said in a statement.

The study continues through the summer and researchers are looking for more participants. To sign up, go here or call 713-500-9441. Texans ages five to 80 are eligible to participate, regardless of whether they’ve tested positive or been vaccinated for COVID-19.

Cover photo: An El Pasoan gets a COVID-19 test at UTEP. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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