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Business & Economy Coronavirus Featured

El Paso is at a COVID-19 crossroads. Here’s where we stand.

Cover illustration by Ana Gaby Becerra

UPDATE: Some of this information has been updated with data through Monday, May 4.

Friday marks seven weeks since El Paso’s first reported COVID-19 case. It’s also the day that Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas economy to begin reopening.

Here’s where El Paso stands seven weeks into its efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Number of new cases growing, but at a slower rate

Any discussion of the number of novel coronavirus infections must start with a major caveat. El Paso’s testing rate continues to lag more than 40 percent behind the national average, so the number of cases continues to be undercounted.

It also means we still don’t have a good idea of the extent of community spread in El Paso. That’s a major reason why New Mexico health authorities are saying that Land of Enchantment residents shouldn’t venture to El Paso as stores and restaurants open.

With that in mind, here is the number of reported new cases each week since the first case was reported March 13.

But the rate of growth of reported cases is slowing.

For the past two weeks, reported new cases have grown, on average, by less than 6 percent a day. That’s well below the growth rate of the first five weeks of the COVID-19 crisis in El Paso.

COVID-19 deaths

The Department of Public Health has reported 21 COVID-19 deaths in El Paso County as of Thursday. That’s a rate of 2.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, well below the national rate of 19.4 deaths per 100,000. The statewide rate in Texas is 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people.

But more than half of El Paso’s deaths have come in the past week.

What’s happening at El Paso’s hospitals

Gov. Abbott has said he will look at hospitalization data as a key indicator on whether restrictions could be further loosened or tightened again.

The number of hospitalizations and intensive care admissions due to COVID-19 in El Paso climbed in the first two weeks of April, when the Department of Public Health first began reporting such data. Many of these were likely infections contracted before the city and county “Stay Home, Work Safe” orders shut down much of the movement in El Paso.

The number of hospital and ICU admissions initially peaked on April 15, declined for a few days and then generally held steady until Wednesday, when they shot up again. City officials said on Monday that a decline the reported a day earlier was a “clerical error.”

Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the El Paso city-county health authority, said “there is a strong correlation between the Easter break (April 11-12) and the spike in positive cases” that began showing up two to three weeks later. He expressed concerns that Mother’s Day, May 10, could trigger another COVID-19 surge if compliance with safety guidelines weakens.

Where COVID-19 is hitting

COVID-19 is not spread evenly across El Paso. Some areas have been harder hit than others. But there’s no clear pattern based on socioeconomic status or age. 

The areas with the highest infection rates are Tornillo in the rural Lower Valley, Canutillo in the Upper Valley and two ZIP codes in urban core of Central El Paso. The lowest infection rates are in Downtown/South El Paso and rural Anthony in northwest El Paso County, but that could be a reflection of low testing rates.

Hover your cursor over a ZIP code for more detail.

Reduction in mobility

Google has been releasing mobility data as a tool for public health officials to determine effectiveness of efforts to reduce social contacts. The dataset compares recent movements to different types of locations to movements in January and February. The latest report is from April 26.

El Paso’s mobility reduction has been similar to the United States and Texas, with the exception of parks, where our decline has been among the steepest in the country. El Paso was one of the few major cities to close parks completely in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Parks remain closed, except for hiking and biking trails.

The economic fallout

It’s horrible. 

Workforce Solutions Borderplex reports that almost 45,000 people in the El Paso area have filed unemployment claims since mid-March. That’s one out of every eight jobs that El Pasoans had in February

Our April unemployment rate won’t be released until later this month or early June, but it likely will approach or surpass 20 percent. Our highest unemployment rate in the last 30 years was 13.4 percent in January 1991. It was 3.8 percent in February.

Sales-tax receipts, another key economic indicator, won’t be available for a couple of months.

El Paso’s sales tax collections had been running more than 9 percent ahead of the prior fiscal year from September through January. But in February, as COVID-19 spread around the world but before the first reported case in El Paso, El Paso’s sales-tax collections were only about 1 percent higher than the same month the prior year, a sign that consumers were already anxious.

Bars were the first businesses ordered closed in El Paso, on March 17. Among 44 El Paso bars that filed tax statements so far for March 2020 that were also open in March 2019, sales were down 44 percent for the month.

Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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