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El Paso’s fall COVID surge driven by unvaccinated

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This story has been updated with data through Saturday, Nov. 27.

El Paso County is seeing another surge in cases of COVID-19 this month with the El Paso Department of Public Health reporting more than 3,200 new cases in the week ending Saturday, Nov. 27.

That marks the highest weekly total since the last week of January. The total includes delayed test results from previous weeks. More than a quarter of recent cases have been among children under age 12.

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The current spike isn’t as high as last fall’s count, when the city saw stretches of more than 1,000 new cases daily before the vaccine was widely available. But the current surge doesn’t surprise Dr. Armando Meza, chief of infectious diseases at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

“The majority of the new cases are among those who have not yet decided to get vaccinated” or have been ineligible to get the COVID shot, Meza said. “And that’s a pretty bad situation because the vaccine is widely available and is free and (yet) there is still a hesitancy to be protected by the vaccine.”

Unvaccinated individuals accounted for more than two-thirds of the county’s new infections in recent weeks.

About 70% of county residents age 5 and older are fully vaccinated, according to health department figures. That means hundreds of thousands of El Pasoans remain unvaccinated.

A vaccine has been available to children 12 and older since May. The pediatric Pfizer vaccine was made available to kids 5 and up earlier this month.

Meza said he suspects the current case increase is partly due to K-12 students’ return to campuses this school year. New cases began to rise in October, soon after a Texas appeals court ordered city of El Paso officials to drop a countywide indoor mask mandate that had been in place since mid-August.

The Canutillo Independent School District temporarily moved an elementary and middle school to remote learning on Nov. 12 after cases spiked at those campuses.

Meza encourages families to take advantage of the Thanksgiving break from school to get the first of the two COVID shots. Fully vaccinated El Pasoans should also schedule their booster shot, he said, as the vaccine’s protection wanes over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends COVID-19 vaccine boosters for anyone 18 and older at least six months after their second Pfizer or Moderna dose, or at least two months after their single Johnson & Johnson dose.

The city of El Paso offers boosters by appointment Monday through Saturday.

A child received a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month at The Hospitals of Providence Children’s Hospital. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

Though El Paso County has touted its high vaccination rates — one of the highest in the state — that is not enough to prevent COVID-19 infection in even those who are fully vaccinated, Meza said.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were based on the virus’ original strain that was first detected in Wuhan, China, while the highly contagious delta variant is now the dominant strain worldwide. Vaccines still protect against severe illness and death, but it’s possible for vaccinated individuals to contract and spread the virus, he said.

Local officials made headlines across the state in October when they claimed the city was the first in the state to reach “herd immunity” since at the time, 75% of residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated. The delta variant, however, has thrown what Meza called the “magic number” out the window, he said.

“What people need to be aware of is that when you have a more transmissible virus — the delta variant — the number (of vaccinated people) may need to be higher” for the virus to be under control, he said.

Though there have been instances of “breakthrough deaths” — people who died due to COVID-19 complications despite being vaccinated — that is still rare. To date, the health department has reported 37 breakthrough deaths, which account for about 5% of the more than 800 deaths reported this year.

“It is very critical to remember that when the vaccine was first developed, its number 1 goal was to decrease mortality,” Meza said.

The vast majority of people currently hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Meza said.

There are 260 people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to city health department data. Hospitalizations broke 200 earlier this month, after not reaching that level since March.

About 86% of the El Paso area’s nearly 1,800 hospital beds are currently occupied, according to state health data. About 15% of the beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Cover photo: A teenager received a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at The Hospitals of Providence Children’s Hospital in early May, shortly after Texas officials gave the go-ahead for people aged 12-15 to get the shot. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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