El Paso is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, triggering the county’s return to a high level of community risk under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s parameters.

Large gatherings and relaxed preventative measures are fueling community transmission, said county health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza. He expressed concern about the increase in hospital admissions.

“We are seeing people now infected and requiring hospitalization,” he wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, once we see this, we will start seeing an increase in fatalities.”

Though El Paso has a high rate of adult vaccination, immunity over time will wane, said Kristina Mena, regional dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health El Paso campus.

A combination of different factors have led to the uptick in cases.

More people are traveling, traveling greater distances, and even getting stranded in crowded airports as flight cancellations and delays pile up, Mena said.

Passenger traffic at the El Paso International Airport is up 63.5% compared to this time last year, according to the airport’s May aviation report, the latest figures available.

El Paso International Airport seen in May 2022. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

More people are also returning to work in person, going to concerts and attending churches for in-person worship while many of the safeguards, like masking, have been relaxed for some time, Mena added.

The CDC determines community risk levels based on hospital beds being used, hospital admissions and the number of new COVID-19 cases in an area. The federal agency lowered El Paso’s community risk to medium in March when the county’s COVID-19 situation had improved.

While the latest bump in COVID-19 cases is far below the omicron surge that occurred over Christmas and New Year’s, the more than 6,000 new COVID-19 cases this June is more than a 1,200% increase compared to June 2021, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The data likely shows an undercount of current cases, as home tests have become more common and people do not have to report these results.

Ocaranza advised people to not dismiss symptoms and notify the Department of Public Health if they test positive.

CDC recommends masks indoors, booster shots

In El Paso, an area of high community COVID-19 risk, Ocaranza and the CDC recommend wearing masks in public indoor spaces and staying up-to-date on vaccines. Mena said people should consider their personal health status first and foremost, and their level of exposure — including places like the airport or a plane where masks are no longer mandated.

“People who are immunocompromised are most vulnerable to a severe outcome, and that includes young children and elderly, anyone with a suppressed immune system,” Mena said. “For those, it’s not a bad idea to wear a KN95 when going indoors or crowded outdoors.”

El Paso cannot reimplement an indoor mask mandate because of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates.

Mena and Ocaranza also recommend that El Pasoans get their booster shot if they haven’t already. Even people who have been exposed to COVID-19 or already had the virus should get the booster to have all mitigation safeguards in place, Mena said.

In El Paso, 82% of residents ages 5 and up are fully vaccinated, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard. A booster shot is effective against infection as the effectiveness of initial COVID-19 vaccination wanes. Second booster shots are available for adults age 50 and older and immunocompromised people ages 5 and up.

After COVID-19 vaccines were approved for children under 5 years old, two sisters were the first to get vaccinated at Immunize El Paso’s Eastside clinic on June 20. (Courtesy of Immunize El Paso)

‘Parents can’t let their guard down’

El Paso rolled out Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for children under 5 years old, the last age group to be vaccinated against COVID-19, in June.

Parents should prioritize vaccinating their children, especially as people continue to travel over the summer and school begins in August, Mena said.

Children ages 12 and under have made up more than 31,000 positive COVID-19 cases in El Paso, or about 12% of the county’s total cases, since the start of the pandemic. But children also have among the lowest rates of vaccination.

While children have a lower risk of severe illness when infected with COVID-19, they can still spread the disease to other people who are at higher risk, including grandparents in their household and immunocompromised classmates. Children are also more vulnerable to other infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which has seen recent surges in Texas.

“Parents can’t let their guard down,” Mena said. “If (children) become infected with something else, their immune system’s vulnerable and it may make them more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2.”

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.

Parents can get their children vaccinated at county-run clinics and other sites, including Immunize El Paso, El Paso Children’s Hospital, University Medical Center of El Paso, CVS and Walgreens.

At all levels of community risk, the CDC recommends that people get tested if they have symptoms of COVID-19. People can order free home tests from covid.gov/tests or purchase them from the nearest drug store.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...