El Paso County saw a fall surge of COVID-19 infections as the delta variant swept through the country. That surge produced our highest number of COVID-19 infections of 2021 — although the situation was not nearly as bad as what El Paso faced in fall 2020, when we had to bring in mobile morgues to handle the number of people dying.

The number of new infections in El Paso has been in decline for a couple of weeks, but that’s not expected to last. The omicron variant is now sweeping the globe, and El Paso is unlikely to escape another wave.

Because omicron is relatively new, much remains unknown about its impact. But early indications are that omicron spreads more easily than earlier forms of COVID-19, but is less virulent, meaning that people who get infected are less likely to fall seriously ill and require hospitalization. But if large numbers of people not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are infected by omicron, hospitals could still come under increasing stress.

Because of that, health experts — including El Paso’s Dr. Ogechika Alozie — say the key thing to watch in the coming days and weeks is the impact on hospitals, not the number of infections.

With that in mind, here’s what’s been happening in El Paso’s hospitals and intensive care units the past three months.

New COVID-19 hospitalizations

One daily measure to follow is the number of new people being admitted to El Paso area hospitals for COVID-19 treatment each day. El Paso County is in what state health officials call Trauma Service Area I, which also includes Hudspeth and Culberson counties. The vast majority of hospital beds and infections in that region are in El Paso.

The number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions in the region rose through most of the fall, but has been falling for a couple of weeks.

COVID-19 cases in hospitals and ICUs

People who become very sick with COVID-19 often require several days of care in hospitals or intensive care units. So it’s important to track the trend of people with COVID-19 in hospital rooms and ICUs.

Those numbers rose sharply throughout the fall. The hospitalization numbers have come down since mid-December, but the ICU caseload is more stubborn.

The strain on the hospital system

COVID-19 is a significant stressor of our region’s hospital system, but it’s not the only one. Heart attacks, strokes, accidents and other respiratory illnesses like the flu also lead people to seek treatment.

Hospitals have some flexibility to add beds and the staff to care for patients, but that has its limits. For the past three months, El Paso area hospitals have been able to keep more than 200 beds unoccupied and available. A huge omicron wave could stress that cushion.

The same holds true for intensive care units, where the sickest people are treated. In recent days, El Paso hospitals have been able to keep only a couple of ICU beds available and unoccupied.

Protect yourself

Health experts say the best protection against COVID-19, including the omicron variant, continues to be for all people age 5 and older to get fully vaccinated. People age 18 and older should get a booster shot two months after a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccination or six months after completing their primary COVID-19 vaccination series of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.

Indications are that people in good health who have been vaccinated are unlikely to be seriously sickened by the omicron variant.

Wearing a mask in public, indoor settings helps slow the spread of COVID-19. Increasingly, health officials encourage people to use high filtration respirators like N95s or KN95s instead of cloth masks.

Read more: El Paso infectious disease experts share tips on protecting you and your family from omicron.

Cover photo: El Paso COVID-19 testing sites, including one at the Don Haskins Recreation Center on the Westside, have been busy in the week after Christmas. (Angela Saavedra/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.