Border readies for protracted war on coronavirus, flu, slew of viruses that peak in fall

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Task force urges improved regional dialogue, deployment of 'promotoras' to neighborhoods that could become COVID-19 hotspots

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Even as they deal with the largest COVID-19 spike to date, El Paso County officials see another public health storm coming this fall.

That’s because the coronavirus is likely to still be around when influenza and other viral infections — such as bronchitis, meningitis and the common cold — tend to peak. Add to that the likely return of students to their classrooms and the potential for further spread of the coronavirus.

“What’s going to happen when COVID is still up and we have influenza? What is it going to be like in our hospitals?” County Judge Ricardo Samaniego asked at Monday’s county commissioners’ court meeting.

The county on Sunday reported 441 new COVID-19 cases, the largest one-day spike to date. Monday’s totals were considerably lower at 196 new cases, but five people lost their lives to the virus and a record 110 patients were on ICU beds.

County officials on Monday heard from members of the El Paso United COVID-19 Transition Task Force, who are preparing a set of recommendations to manage the ongoing crisis and prepare for the next.

Suggestions include a tri-state approach to crisis management, increased use of technology to track those exposed to the infected, a color-coded chart indicating the severity of the pandemic in the community at any given time, and enlisting the help of “promotoras,” or neighborhood health advocates, to reach vulnerable groups in their homes.

“We have seen a sharp increase in cases from mid-June to July. We’re up 400 percent,” said El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza, a task force coordinator. He blamed the increase on community spread — people leaving their homes to go work or shop, then bringing the virus home.

Courtesy City of El Paso

The mortality rate stands at 1.64% but is inching up. “It’s been diluted because of the large number of positivity (tests). But it should not give us a false sense of security. […] the numbers are up not because of increased testing but because of community spread,” Ocaranza said.

The spike in cases is being driven by people in their 20s and 30s being out and about not always observing social distancing or using face masks. Older people with underlying medical conditions are dying because their younger relatives — particularly in the multi-generational households that abound in El Paso — are bringing the virus home, he said.

“Nine out of 10 who have died in El Paso had underlying conditions like hypertension or diabetes. We can’t stress enough the need to control those conditions, improve diet, do exercise, sleep the right amount of time and practice all the good habits that will prepare the body in case they get infected,” Ocaranza said.

Dr. Hector Ocaranza (left) and other coordinators of the El Paso United COVID-19 Transition Task Force. (Image capture from YouTube)

A regional approach for the remainder of 2020

El Paso and other border communities from California to South Texas face unique challenges in containing the spread of COVDI-19. The most obvious is they share a border with Mexico and — despite non-essential international travel restrictions — many U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents haven’t stopped crossing the border.

In El Paso, vehicle traffic crossing into Juarez is evidenced by long vehicle lines starting around 4 p.m. From the south, traffic remains constant from dawn to dusk.

Ocaranza on Monday told county commissioners formal channels of communication need to be established with Mexican authorities. Such communication already exists with Juarez, but it needs to be formalized to the point that a Mexican official needs to be part of the task force.

Juarez as of Monday has reported 3,738 confirmed coronavirus cases and 617 fatalities for a 16.5% mortality rate. That’s 10 times higher than El Paso’s death rate.

Officials on both sides of the border said earlier that Juarez’s mortality rate is probably inflated due to very limited testing. As of last Saturday, the entire state of Chihuahua — which includes Juarez — had administered 26,000 tests since the pandemic began. El Paso is testing 2,913 people every day on average.

Proposed El Paso County coronavirus threat designation. (El Paso County)

One thing Mexico already did was come up with a color-coded coronavirus threat chart that defines what activities can and cannot take place in each state.

On Monday, Ocaranza showed El Paso county commissioners a proposed color-coded chart measuring the severity of the COVID-19 situation in terms of hospital capacity, testing and positivity rates and the percentage of contact-tracing investigations.

Then there is the matter of El Paso’s “other” border. The New Mexico communities of Sunland Park, Santa Teresa, La Union, Anthony and Chaparral are practically suburbs of El Paso, Many people from those communities and as far away as Las Cruces work in El Paso. As of Sunday, Doña Ana County, N.M., had recorded 1,717 COVID-19 cases.

Even if people can’t stay home, they should be practicing social distancing, wearing masks and practicing constant handwashing, Ocaranza said.

Recruiting “promotoras” to disseminate COVID-19 prevention and testing information at the neighborhood level. (County of El Paso)

One of the task force’s suggestions is to improve communication not only between public entities and the public. One possible way to do this, particularly when it comes to people reluctant to get tested or wear facemasks is to deploy “promotoras” to their homes.

“Our partnership with community health workers is of extreme value. What they bring to the table is communication at the neighborhood level which could help us disseminate the right message if (the neighborhood) represents a hot spot,” Ocaranza said.

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