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El Paso County may hold off reopening senior centers as COVID-19 cases spike

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El Paso County officials may put off the full reopening of its senior centers after a spike in COVID-19 cases among El Pasoans ages 60 and older.

El Paso County COVID-19 data shows 304 new cases among those 60 and older reported for the week that ended Oct. 30. That’s a 433% increase from the prior week, when 56 cases were reported. The number of new infections in the 60-plus age group in El Paso is 171% higher than any other week in the last three months, an El Paso Matters analysis shows.

“We are seeking guidance from the public health authority (Dr. Hector Ocaranza) on whether opening our county centers to full operation … is recommended given the spike in COVID cases, deaths and hospitalization rates, in particular for the high-risk group,” said Irene Valenzuela, executive director for the El Paso County Community Services Department.

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El Paso County reported 272 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, the highest single-day count since March 31. That included 27 new cases among people 60 and older. The county also reported that 163 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, the highest number since April 27.

City-county COVID-19 data shows there were 10 deaths reported last week of people 60 and older, the highest since 13 the week of Aug. 8-14. The figure does not necessarily mean all the individuals died during that week, however. Some deaths are not recorded until weeks afterward due to reporting delays.

The county was initially going to resume full operations for its three senior centers in Fabens, Montana Vista and Canutillo at the beginning of December. The centers are currently open on Thursdays for two hours of social time.

Carlos Reynoso, county coordinator for the Canutillo senior center, said precautions, including temperature checks and providing face masks if necessary, are taken at the center. There is also an air purifier inside the facility.

“People are very happy to come to the center and be with their friends and play loteria and play bingo and socialize, so they are really enjoying it and happy to come back,” Reynoso said.

Valenzuela said the county will fully reopen its other operations by Dec. 1, and is seeking guidance from Ocaranza on whether reopening senior centers to full operations by that date is recommended.

Julian Garcia, 86, who was at the Canutillo center Thursday morning, said he doesn’t mind if the county waits to fully reopen the centers because of the rising number of cases. He said he would like the centers to be open daily, but understands if there is a delay.

Garcia said he is fully vaccinated and has received his booster shot.

“It’s nice to be out of the house and see people’s faces and to exercise and play bingo and loteria,” Garcia said.

Julian Garcia, 86, left, gathered with friends Thursday at the Canutillo senior center. (Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

Valenzuela said the county is trying to coordinate mobile booster drives or vaccine clinics to get seniors that frequent the centers their third doses ahead of the full reopening.

Maria Teran, 80, who was also at the county’s Canutillo senior center Thursday, said she still needs to get her booster shot, but is fully vaccinated. She understands that the county hasn’t fully reopened the center, but is looking forward to it.

“We are very happy here spending a little time out of the house,” Teran said.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department fully opened its 10 Senior Centers to pre-pandemic schedule on Monday.

Cultural Affairs and Recreation Managing Director Ben Fyffe said one of the reasons the city resumed full operations was due to high vaccination rates among seniors.

According to city data, about 91% of people ages 65 and older are fully vaccinated. Seniors were among the first population to be vaccinated at the beginning of the year.

Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found COVID-19 vaccinations for adults ages 65 years and older remain effective in preventing severe disease, but are less effective at preventing infection or milder illness with symptoms over time.

The lower effectiveness is likely due to decreased immunization protection over time and the greater infectiousness of the delta variant, according to the CDC.

The city began administering COVID-19 Pfizer booster shots at the end of September, and doses of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen and Pfizer-BioNTech at the end of October.

The city has been monitoring positive cases reported at senior centers since partial services began in June and have been taking precautions, including temporary closures and occasional deep cleaning.

Fyffe said the city will continue to monitor any potential outbreaks before determining whether to reduce operating hours again.

“If we were to see four or five, six of those centers in the same week (with positive cases) —   that’s a different conversation,” Fyffe said. “But again, we don’t have a crystal ball.” 

Cover photo: Maria Teran, 80, right, plays loteria at the county operated senior center in Canutillo Thursday morning. (Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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