Rising community spread of COVID-19 has begun to result in staffing shortages in El Paso testing facilities and other government functions.

At the city’s COVID-19 testing megasites, 20% of staff are currently out sick with COVID-19, El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino said Thursday.

D’Agostino also said that at the Fire Department, 70 personnel are currently out sick with COVID-19. These staffing shortages have not impacted their ability to respond to emergency calls, and they have maintained minimum staffing levels through overtime and reassignments, he said.

“It’s across the board,” he said. “We were just having a conversation … even trying to order some food in the Downtown area, there’s a couple of restaurants that are closed due to COVID, they just don’t have the staffing to remain open.”

City employees who work in an office setting have been advised to work from home through February 28, in response to heightened community spread, D’Agostino said.

On Monday, city officials reported the first 12 confirmed cases of the omicron variant, which studies have found to be more transmissible than previous variants of COVID-19. Given that those confirmed cases were from the week of Christmas and that the omicron variant has a doubling rate of two to three days, infectious disease specialist Dr. Ogechika Alozie said it’s reasonable to expect that somewhere between 30 and 60% of new cases in El Paso are the Omicron variant.

The city reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the first time El Paso has crossed that threshold since November 2020. But hospitalization rates have not kept apace, a cause for optimism.

“What we are seeing is large numbers of cases. What we aren’t seeing is a high demand on the hospital system. So there’s a difference right there,” D’Agostino said.

He said that because of new onboarding the city is doing at megasites, they expect staffing levels to return to normal by next week, and emphasized that there is minimal delay for El Pasoans who want to receive a booster shot or vaccine dose.

Although El Paso has boasted a high vaccination rate, the same cannot be said for the booster rate. El Paso lags behind the national rate of boosters administered to Americans (35%), with just 23.5% boosted among El Pasoans above 16 years of age, as of Jan. 3.

D’Agostino emphasized that El Pasoans should go back to the basic COVID-19 principles to respond to rising community spread.

“Keep your social distancing, wear a mask when indoors, wash your hands, if you haven’t been vaccinated please do,” he said.

Visit the city of El Paso’s website for information about COVID-19 testing or to self-report a positive COVID-19 test. Register for a vaccine or booster shot here.

Cover photo: A long line of cars waited for COVID-19 vaccine testing last week at the Don Haskins Recreation Center at 7400 High Ridge Drive in West El Paso. (Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.