Staff from El Paso County Emergency Services District 2 fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Update 3:20 p.m., Oct. 9: This story has been updated to include data through Friday, Oct. 8.

An 18% increase in COVID-19 infections over the past week has pushed El Paso to a “high” rate of spread, the first time in more than a month that the county has hit the highest level of spread under guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC considers a community to have a high rate of spread when it exceeds 100 new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days. El Paso’s rate of new infections has been increasing since the beginning of October and stood at 130.1 on Thursday, according to the CDC. (Note: El Paso County’s rate dropped to 93.7 on Friday, but that appears to because of delayed reporting from state health officials, which resulted in zero cases reported for that day.)

The last time El Paso County surpassed the standard for high rate of COVID-19 spread was Aug. 31. From Sept. 1 through Monday, El Paso County had been listed by the CDC as having a “substantial” rate of spread, meaning a rate of 50 to 99.9 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the prior seven days.

According to the CDC, about 90% of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States had high rates of COVID-19 spread as of Friday. 

The CDC’s mask guidance is largely similar for communities with “substantial” and “high” rates of community spread. The health agency recommends that people vaccinated against COVID-19 wear masks in indoor public settings in those communities. (The CDC recommends that unvaccinated people wear masks indoors regardless of a community’s infection rates.)

The one significant change for communities with high spread rates is a recommendation that people with vaccinations wear masks in crowded outdoor settings. 

El Paso’s recent increase in COVID-19 infections began just as an appeals court on Sept. 30 struck down a mask mandate from the county’s health authority, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, that had been in effect since Aug. 17. The court ruled that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates would be in effect while it considered legal action around Ocaranza’s order.

El Paso Independent School District was the last local government in the county to continue with a mask mandate, but the school board ended that mandate on Monday.

Businesses can enforce their own mask mandates, and many stores and employers in El Paso continue to require face coverings in their facilities.

Because it generally takes two to 14 days after infection for symptoms to show, the rise in El Paso infections likely would have started in the last days of the mask mandate.

The number of new weekly El Paso COVID-19 infections were twice as high Thursday compared to a week earlier and comes as the number of new cases in the United States has declined.

The number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in El Paso has increased by 9% in the past week, according to the CDC, though the number of ICU beds available has remained steady.

El Paso health officials reported 124 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of Friday, with 51 being treated in intensive care units.

Health officials say the COVID-19 vaccine remains the best protection against the virus, greatly reducing the chance of serious illness, hospitalization and death. More than 76% of El Pasoans age 12 and older have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, higher than state and national averages.

Cover photo: Staff from El Paso County Emergency Services District 2 fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.