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This story has been updated with data through Saturday, Aug. 21.
The current debate over COVID-19 and steps to slow its spread can be confusing. But by focusing on a few key data points, we can get a clearer picture of what’s happening with the virus, and what we can do to protect ourselves and our families.
The most important information is the trend in new COVID-19 infections. That gives us a good picture of what is happening with the spread of the virus.
In El Paso, the number of infections has been growing steadily. Daily case counts can show wild swings, making it harder to understand trends. We can more readily identify trends by looking at the number of new infections reported in El Paso County over the prior seven days.
We can see that the number of infections has risen steadily since the beginning of July.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a system for assessing community spread of COVID-19, based on the number of infections per 100,000 residents.
The virus spread is considered low if the number of infections over the prior seven days is fewer than 10 per 100,000 residents; moderate at 10 to 49.9 infections over the prior seven days for every 100,000 residents; substantial at 50-99.9 new infections per 100,000 residents; high at any level over 100 new infections per 100,000 residents.
El Paso was in the moderate spread range for most of July but crossed to the substantial level on July 28. We’ve reached the high risk level last week and again this week.
The CDC’s guidance on when to wear masks is tied to the measures of the risk of community spread.
The CDC recommends that anyone living in areas with substantial or high risk of community spread of COVID-19, which has included El Paso since July 28, should wear masks when indoors, even if the person is fully vaccinated. (People who aren’t vaccinated should wear masks indoors no matter where they live, according to the CDC.)
In outdoor settings, masks generally aren’t needed, the CDC says. However, people in areas with high levels of community spread — the category El Paso has been in since Aug. 17 — should “consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated,” according to the CDC.
The increase in infections is reflected in rising usage of hospital and intensive care unit beds by COVID-19 patients. But such patients are occupying a relatively small percentage of beds.
Based on the data and current CDC guidance, here is what El Pasoans should do to protect themselves, their families and the community:
- Get vaccinated against COVID-19 if you are eligible. The vaccine has proven to be highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19. More than 84% of El Pasoans 12 and older have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 71% are considered fully vaccinated. Of the more than 492,000 El Pasoans who have been fully vaccinated, just over 100 have required hospital treatment for COVID-19. That’s 0.02% of those vaccinated.
- Wear a mask when indoors, except for your home. This holds true regardless of vaccination status. The CDC offers guidance on what types of masks work best, and how to wear them.
- Put six feet of distance between yourself and people who don’t live in your household.
- Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.
- Cover coughs and sneezes. If you cough or sneeze into your mask, replace it as quickly as possible and wash your hands.
- Every day, clean high-touch surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
Cover photo: Wearing masks and frequent hand washing are important steps for slowing the spread of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo illustration courtesy of University Medical Center)