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El Paso resident Carlos Martinez was relieved in June when the number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 dropped in his community.
Martinez, 25, began going to restaurants for the first time in months, seeing friends and going out again after caring for more than a year.
Then, the highly contagious delta variant began to gain strength in Texas and the rest of the nation in July, and the numbers began to rise again statewide.
Martinez, who is vaccinated, said he returned to isolation to help reduce the spread of the virus in El Paso, where COVID-19 killed so many people late last year that the county had to use inmates to help overflow the bodies in the morgue.
But even though in July and August, the delta crossed most of the state’s 254 counties, breaking records and crushing hospitals in rural conservative areas and the vast liberal subways, El Paso, with one of the highest rates. highest vaccination in the state, has been relatively unscathed by the most recent rise.
“We held our breath after July 4, but we didn’t see the increase we planned to see in terms of hospitalizations,” said Martinez, a local government employee.
Although some other metropolitan areas like Austin recorded a record number of COVID-19 patients at hospitals in their area last month, and while statewide hospitalizations were on the verge of eclipsing the January high of 14,218, hospitals in the El Paso area, serving nearly a million West Texas residents have not come close to their previous highs.
The peak of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in El Paso was just over 1,100 in mid-November, said Wanda Helgesen, director of BorderRAC, the state’s regional advisory board for local hospitals.
On Thursday, the number of people hospitalized by COVID-19 in El Paso was 127.
In fact, the city’s daily hospitalization data hasn’t surpassed 200 since March, according to the Texas State Department of Health Services. Hospitals have increased their patients, they have occasionally seen ICUs fill up and have the same staffing problems as the rest of the state, he said, but so far they have been able to handle the increase.
Most of the pressure is related to non-COVID patients, many of whom had been waiting to receive treatment for other problems, he said.
“We have an increase in patients, but not to the extent that other parts of Texas have,” he said.
Helgesen and others say much of the credit can be attributed to the area’s high vaccination rate, widespread compliance with masking and social distancing, and a strong association between the local community and health leaders.
“It’s amazing,” Helgesen said. “It is absolutely a credit to our community. I really think it was a total effort. “
The proportion of COVID-19 tests in El Paso that return positive ranges around 6%, while the statewide positivity rate is three times that of 18%.
And while COVID-19 patients, most unvaccinated, occupied more than 30 percent of hospital capacity in some areas and more than 20 percent statewide last week, in El Paso they accounted for only 7 percent of patients in local hospitals.
For a city with one of the highest per capita deaths in the state for COVID-19, the figures present a rare glimpse of good news for traumatized residents of this West Texas border city.
“Compared to the rest of Texas, we’re in heaven,” said Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Texas-El Paso. “That doesn’t mean we’re free of COVID, but we do it much, much better than most of the rest of the state. The numbers don’t lie.”
Civic and health leaders say they are not unaware of one important fact: El Paso’s rises have been weeks behind the rest of the state throughout the pandemic, so it is possible that the region’s own delta-fed peak can continue.
“We don’t drop the guard,” Helgesen said.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother to COVID during the winter hike, said the reason the city and county have enacted recent mask warrants, challenging Governor Greg Abbott’s ban, despite the lower number, is because the potential for another increase is still real.
“We care and want to make sure we don’t have spikes,” he said. “You always want to be proactive and always be prepared.”
The sense of community helps COVID’s response
El Paso was in the spotlight in November, when it had one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the country.
Images of black and white striped county prison patrons transporting body bags to eight mobile morgue trucks outside the forensic doctor’s office with little personalization were a shocking illustration of the heavy weight the virus affected in the community.
During the fall, the number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in El Paso soared nearly tenfold between September and November, at a time when figures dropped and restrictions eased in most other parts of the state. .
El Paso COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remained relatively high until well into the spring, while the rest of the state experienced a decline as vaccines became available.
Today, passersby may be taking the delta increase more seriously than residents in other areas less affected by this traumatic time, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas State Department of Health Services. .
“El Paso experienced one of the biggest pandemic crises with hospitals absolutely invaded by COVID patients last year, and the community memory of that period and the measures that helped deal with the city and the region they can help people take the current situation more seriously, “he said.
There are several other factors that are likely to play into El Paso’s relative success in keeping the delta variant at bay and people out of the hospital, state and local health officials and residents say.
There may be a high level of natural immunity among local residents, which according to medical experts looks like it will keep COVID-19 patients out of the hospital with the slightest chance of them being re-infected, health experts say.
There has been widespread acceptance of monoclonal antibody treatments, which according to Helgesen kept at least 300 people out of hospitals during the last wave and because the area never closed the regional infusion center, as other areas did. when the numbers dropped in the spring. it will probably also keep people out of hospitals.
The geography of the city is also a factor: it is located hundreds of miles from the nearest population center and borders New Mexico, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with 61% fully vaccinated.
And Walmart’s mass shooting two years ago, in which 23 people died on August 3, 2019, contributed to a greater sense of community and empathy that tends to lend itself to widespread compliance with masking and vaccinations, said local resident Steven Wysocki.
“This El Paso Strong thing has resonated since the Walmart shooting,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. “We protect our community.” It is on a personal level. It is a strong sense of family and community responsibility. Although the population of El Paso is close to one million, we are still a small town.
Van Deusen said the tragedy probably generated confidence in the response to the local pandemic.
“There seems to be a sense of community and trust in local leaders and public health … which can help a lot in promoting a cohesive community response to a crisis,” he said.
When Abbott lifted mask mandates and statewide business limits in March, El Paso civic leaders asked their residents to continue wearing masks and most companies continued to voluntarily limit their services during all spring, Leeser said.
Wysocki, a 51-year-old Army veteran with a disability, says most people seem to be taking the latest wave across the state seriously.
“Everywhere you go, wherever you go, people have the mask on and put it on,” he said.
El Paso is one of the most vaccinated counties in Texas
But it is the high vaccination rate in El Paso that most claim is the main factor in the relative success of the community in reducing the impact of delta growth.
Nearly 62% of all El Paso residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 49% statewide. Almost 97% of all passers-by aged 65 or over, the age group most at risk of hospitalization and death, have had at least one shot.
By contrast, only about a third of residents in Panhandle and East Texas are fully vaccinated.
“We did a really good job of making sure our community was vaccinated, and that made a big difference,” Leeser said. “And when we talk about ‘us,’ it’s not just the city of El Paso. It’s the county, the county judge, the University Medical Center, the private providers, everyone in the area. We all got together. and it has been an ongoing message that we have been sending to the community. “
COVID-19 vaccines do not guarantee that recipients do not get the virus, but they are very effective in keeping infected patients out of the hospital and almost 100% effective in preventing death from the virus.
Wysocki received the vaccine as soon as he could, as did the rest of his family.
He caught the virus several months before the vaccine came out and was in bed for several days, an episode he said motivated his entire family.
“Everyone in our family was shot immediately [when they were available]”No one wanted to go through that,” Wysocki said.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said much of the success is due to El Paso residents being accustomed to looking at each other.
“We know how to do that,” he said. “We know how to get together. We have done it before and we will do it again ”.
Chris Essig contributed to this report.
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