The drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in his community gave relief to an El Paso resident, Carloz Martinez.
For the first time in several months, the 25-year-old Martinez was able to go out to restaurants, meet friends, and enjoy the outdoors after being indoors for more than a year.
However, this July, the more contagious delta variant started to wreak havoc across Texas and the numbers are still increasing statewide.
Martinez went back to isolation despite being vaccinated to help control the COVID-19 spread in El Paso, where many people were killed last year. The county has to seek help from the inmates to deal with the overwhelming bodies at the morgue.
While most of the 254 counties in Texas are dealing with overwhelming COVID-19 cases in July and August, with record-breaking numbers in rural and urban areas, El Paso, one of the highest vaccination rates, has remained ‘safe’ from the recent surge.
Martinez, a local government employee shared, “we held our breath after July Fourth, but we didn’t see the increase we thought we’d see in terms of hospitalizations.”
While some cities like Austin reported high cases of COVID-19 in their area hospitals last month and hospitalizations in the entire state came almost close to the peak of 14,218 last January, hospitals in El Paso serving close to a million residents in West Texas didn’t even come close to their previous records.
In mid-November, the COVID-19 hospitalizations in El Paso peaked at over 1,100 according to Wanda Hegelsen, director of the state’s regional council for local hospitals, BorderRAC, Wanda Helgesen.
On Thursday, El Paso only recorded 127 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, this number hasn’t really been over 200 since March. Hegelsen added that the hospitals are able to manage the patients well despite the occasional increase in patients, ICU admissions, and staffing issues like the rest of the state.
The majority of the cases are not related to COVID and mostly coming from patients who were waiting for their treatment for other health problems, she added.
According to Helgesen, “we do have a surge of patients but not to the extent that other parts of Texas are having.”
Many, including Helgesen, attribute this credit to El Paso’s high vaccination rate, good masking and social distancing compliance, plus the great relationship between the health care leaders and the local community.
“It is amazing,” Helgesen expressed. “It is absolutely a credit to our community. I really think it was an all-out effort.”
The positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in Texas is at 18% while El Paso only has a third, which is 6%.
Plus, El Paso only has 7% of COVID-related patients compared to the 20-30% hospital capacity taken by COVID patients, mostly unvaccinated, in the entire state.
Despite having the highest per-capita COVID-19 death count in Texas, El Paso shows a ray of good news to many West Texans who were traumatized with the virus.
An assistant professor of public health at the Ubiversity of Texas-El Paso, Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia shares, “compared to the rest of Texas, we’re in heaven,” “That doesn’t mean we are free from COVID, but we’re doing much, much better than most of the rest of the state. The numbers don’t lie.”
However, health and civic leaders are still thinking about one critical fact: a surge of cases in El Paso are weeks behind the rest of Texas throughout the pandemic, the the possibility of having a Delta spike is still looming.
“We aren’t letting our guard down,” Helgesen said.
According to El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother to COVID last winter, the city and county have reinforced recent mask mandates, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on them and even with the city’s lower numbers, because of the possibility of another surge can still happen.
“We do worry and we want to make sure that we don’t have any spikes,” he said. “You always want to be proactive and you always want to be prepared.”
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Sense of community aids COVID response
With El Paso’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths rates in the country last November, it gained national attention.
The photos of county jail inmates in black and white stripes lifting body bags to eight mobile morgue trucks outside the medical examiner’s office were the traumatic graphic of how severe the effects of the virus were to the community.
The numbers of hospitalizations in El Paso even increased between September and November while the other parts of the state had dropping numbers and eased restrictions.
While the numbers kept declining for the rest of the state in early springtime plus the availability of vaccines, El Paso’s cases still remained high.
Most of the El Paso residents may be getting extra careful with the delta surge compared to other areas less hard hit, according to Chris Van Deusen, Texas Department of Health Services spokesperson.
“El Paso experienced one of the biggest crises of the pandemic with hospitals absolutely overrun by COVID patients last year, and the communal memory of that period and the measures that helped the city and region cope may be helping people take the current situation more seriously,” he shared.
According to state and local health officials as well as residents, many factors can be credited for the relative success of El Paso at keeping the delta variant away and people out of the hospital.
Local residents may have a high level of natural immunity. Health experts say this immunity keeps the COVID-19 patient out of the hospital in a rare case of reinfection.
Monoclonal antibody treatments helped at least 300 patients last surge, according to Helgesen. And since the area never closed its regional infusion center unlike other areas, this is probably helping people stay out of hospitals too.
The location of the city is a hundred miles from the nearest population center is also a factor. New Mexico is its border and it also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country with 61% fully vaccinated.
A local resident, Steven Wysocki, shared that the sense of community and empathy has also increased after the Walmart mass shooting two years ago killing 23 people. This has helped in better compliance for vaccinations and masking.
He shared, “that El Paso Strong thing has been resonating ever since the Walmart shooting. So that’s another thing. ‘Let’s protect our community.’ It’s on a personal level. It’s a strong sense of family and community responsibility. Even though El Paso’s population is close to a million, we’re still a small town.”
Van Deusen said the tragedy likely resulted to trust in the local pandemic response.
“There does seem to be a sense of community and trust in local leaders and public health … that can go a long way to helping promote a cohesive community response to a crisis,” he added.
Civic leaders in El Paso continued to beg their residents to continue wearing masks even after Abbott lifted statewide mask mandates and business limits in March. Other businesses voluntarily kept limiting their services throughout the spring, according to Leeser.
The 51-year-old disabled Army veteran Wysocki shared that most people seem to be serious about the latest statewide surge.
He said, “any store I go to, every place I go, people have got their mask and they put it on.”
El Paso tops vaccination rates in Texas
However, most are saying the community’s relative success at keeping the delta surge at bay is mostly linked to El Paso’s high vaccination rate.
Almost 62% of all El Paso’s residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 49% statewide. Almost 97% of all seniors in El Paso, that is 65 years old and above, the most vulnerable age group, have had at least one shot.
By contrast, only about one-third of residents in the Panhandle and East Texas are fully vaccinated.
Leeser shared, “we’ve done a really, really good job of making sure our community was vaccinated, and that’s made a huge difference. And when we talk about ‘we,’ it’s not just the city of El Paso.
It’s the county, the county judge, University Medical Center, the private providers, everyone in the area. We all rallied together, and it’s been one continuous message we’ve been getting out to the community.”
Although the COVID-19 vaccines don’t give immunity to recipients against the virus, they are highly effective at keeping the infection manageable without requiring hospitalization and almost 100% effective at preventing death from the virus.
Wysocki made sure he and his family got his vaccine as soon as they could.
His whole family is motivated to get the vaccine because he was infected a few months ago before the vaccines were available and he was bedridden for days.
“Everyone in our family immediately got the shots [when they were available],” Wysocki shared. “No one wanted to go through that.”
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego explained that a huge part of El Paso’s success is the empathy of residents who are used to looking out for each other.
“We know how to do this,” he said. “We know how to come together. We’ve done it before, and we’re going to do it again.”