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Commentary Coronavirus Featured

New COVID-19 infections in El Paso plunge to lowest level in 11 months

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El Paso has reached perhaps its most important milestone in the fight against COVID-19, with new COVID-19 infections falling below 500 in a week for the first time since June 2020.

The number of COVID-19 patients in El Paso hospitals fell to its lowest level in eight months, while COVID-19 patients requiring treatment in intensive care units was the lowest in a year.

COVID-19 vaccinations continued to fall precipitously, an indication that El Paso — like the country as a whole — is unlikely to reach herd immunity.

Here’s our weekly COVID-19 data report.

New cases

The last time El Paso reported fewer than 500 new COVID-19 cases in a week was June 7-13. Our community’s first wave of infections began two weeks after that and continued through the summer.

Infections slowed from mid-August through mid-September, then exploded in the fall, peaking at more than 13,500 cases the first week of November.

Last week, we finally saw infection numbers drop to where they were before our first wave of infections.

Widely available vaccinations have clearly brought down the infection rate.  Last week, people age 40 and older — those most likely to be vaccinated — accounted for a quarter of El Paso’s COVID-19 infections. In 2020, before vaccines were available, that group accounted for half of El Paso’s COVID-19 cases.

Hospitals

The continuing decline in new infections is reflected in El Paso’s hospitals.

The number of people with COVID-19 requiring hospital care dropped to its lowest level since Sept. 15. The number of people who are so sick that they require intensive care treatment is at its lowest level since May 4, 2020. 

Deaths

Despite the decline in infections, El Paso continues to lose about two people per day to COVID-19.

Immunizations

Almost two-thirds of El Pasoans age 16 and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and almost half are fully vaccinated.

But the rate of vaccination has slowed dramatically the past three weeks. 

Like the rest of the country, El Paso is struggling to vaccinate the youngest part of its population.

More than 185,000 El Pasoans between the ages of 16 and 49 have yet to receive even a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine. They account for 72% of all El Pasoans eligible for the vaccine who have not yet received a shot.

Vaccines once held the promise of creating “herd immunity” for COVID-19. That occurs when a large enough percentage of the population — the exact amount varies by pathogen — develops immunity to a virus, through infection or vaccination. Experts now think that’s unlikely to occur in the United States, largely because high levels of vaccine hesitancy are allowing mutations of the virus to spread.

We don’t know what percentage of El Paso’s population has developed immunity to COVID-19. About 16% of the population has tested positive for the coronavirus and about 35% is fully vaccinated. Children age 15 and younger are not yet eligible to be vaccinated; the number of people who have had COVID-19 is likely much larger than the number of positive tests.

El Paso is almost certainly far from herd immunity numbers. And our situation is complicated by the slow pace of vaccinations in Juarez.

So what does all this mean for the future of COVID-19 in El Paso?

Increasing the number of people vaccinated will slow the spread of COVID-19, even if we don’t reach herd immunity. So it’s important to get as many people vaccinated as we can. That’s going to require a lot of hard work by health officials, government leaders and people who recognize the value of vaccines. 

COVID-19 will continue to spread in our community, particularly among people who don’t get vaccinated. Last week, people under age 50 — who comprise the vast majority of unvaccinated El Pasoans — accounted for 87% of new COVID-19 infections. (They accounted for 69% of infections in 2020, before vaccines were available.)

As viruses spread, they mutate. Many mutations are harmless, but some create added dangers, by making the virus more infectious or deadlier. Even though younger people are less likely than their elders to face COVID-19 complications, large numbers of people going unvaccinated creates a risk that viral mutations can spread even to people who have been inoculated.

We likely will continue to see several hundred COVID-19 cases a week in El Paso, heavily concentrated among children and younger adults. Hospital and ICU cases probably will continue to decline. The number of COVID-19 deaths likely will drop in coming weeks, but people will continue to die of the coronavirus.

That’s the best-case scenario. Things could still get worse if mutations create risk for people already vaccinated. The best way to reduce COVID-19 risk is for more people to get vaccinated. 

That will require targeted communication — vaccine shaming isn’t going to work — and vaccination programs that more directly reach those in need. 

Our trends are promising. El Pasoans have sacrificed so much to get to where we are. But we still have some more work to do.

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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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