Students at Charles Middle School in El Paso work masks while participating in tutoring sessions during an intersession break earlier this month. (Leonel Monroy Jr./El Paso Independent School District)

UPDATE Oct. 31, 8:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with data through Oct. 30.

The COVID-19 situation in El Paso is … complicated.

The good news is that El Paso and other border counties continue to lead Texas in COVID-19 vaccinations.

The six Texas counties with the highest rate of population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are all on the U.S.-Mexico border. The No. 9 county also is on the border.

These rates are for the total population, which includes children under age 12 not yet eligible for vaccines. The numbers should go up in coming weeks, when vaccines for 5-11 year olds are expected to become available.

The high vaccination rate — more than two-thirds of all El Pasoans are fully vaccinated — provides strong protection against serious illness, particularly complications that lead to hospitalization or death.

But the gap in vaccinations has allowed the virus to continue spreading.

So while the number of new COVID-19 infections is on the decline nationally, that’s not the case in El Paso. In fact, our infection rate appears to be hitting our highest levels in six months. El Paso public health officials have reported that about 70% of new infections in recent weeks have occurred in people who haven’t been vaccinated.

This chart is a little confusing because of delays in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receiving El Paso data for part of October. Those delays caused the infection rate to artificially drop for a few days in early October, then artificially rise in the middle of the month as the reporting caught up. But those data reporting problems have become less frequent over the past week.

The last time El Paso County’s weekly infection rate was consistently above 120 per 100,000 residents was late April. But we’ve been near or above that rate for several days.

During September, El Paso County averaged about 82 new COVID-infections per 100,000 people every week. So far in October, that’s jumped to almost 110 new infections weekly for every 100,000 residents. That’s a 35% increase.

That rate is important because it drives CDC recommendations. The CDC recommends that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when the weekly infection rate exceeds 50 per 100,000 people. Masks are recommended in crowded outdoor settings, even for people who are fully vaccinated, when weekly infection rates are higher than 100 per 100,000 residents. 

The increase in new cases in recent weeks has been centered in the 40-59 age group. That’s concerning because the older the age of a COVID-19 patient, the greater the likelihood of an infection leading to hospitalization or death.

El Paso Matters broke down new infections into four week periods beginning Aug. 2, which is the week students returned to school. Not surprisingly, school-age children made up a large proportion of new infections in the first four weeks after school started, but that waned as the summer turned to fall.

Over the past four weeks, the number of infections among people aged 40 to 59 has increased by 40%. Among people 20-39, it’s up 14%. The increase in other age groups has been in the single-digit percentages.

Cover photo: Students at Charles Middle School in El Paso work masks while participating in tutoring sessions during an intersession break earlier this month. (Leonel Monroy Jr./El Paso Matters)

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