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New COVID-19 delta variant raises concerns in El Paso as it spreads in United States

Daniel Borunda
El Paso Times

It's only a matter of time before the more contagious delta strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 is in El Paso, the city's top health authority said.

The delta variant is now the dominant strain in the U.S. and has fueled a resurgence of COVID-19 in other countries.

In Texas, the delta strain has been found in the Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Lubbock areas of the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

It has yet to be found in El Paso County, local officials said this week.

"The delta variant has become the most prevalent variant in the U.S. and many parts of the world. So, I think it’s just a matter of time that we’re going to see it," said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso city/county health authority.

The number of active COVID-19 cases in El Paso has been rising recently, even as the number of hospitalizations has remained steady at about 50 patients, according to local public health data. There were 65 patients hospitalized Wednesday.

El Paso health officials are hopeful that with 67% of the county's eligible population fully vaccinated and broadening vaccination outreach can help prevent a new outbreak.

El Paso County COVID-19 vaccine tracker:55% of people fully vaccinated

"Our strategy to try to prevent an outbreak and an uptick in cases and hospitalizations is based heavily on the vaccination of the community," Ocaranza said.

"We’ve seen that the vaccine is still very effective against the variant."

Jesus Jose Olagoe Rojas receives his first dose of Pfizer from RN Itzel Ramirez at The Hospitals of Providence Sierra Campus Thursday, April 29, 2021.

What is the COVID-19 delta variant?

Since it is common for a virus to mutate, new variations of the virus that causes COVID-19 were expected, health authorities said.

The delta strain is the most contagious of the new virus variations, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The delta variation was first identified in India in December and was first detected in the U.S. last March, the CDC reported.

From isolation to vaccination:A timeline of COVID-19 in El Paso

Other variations of the coronavirus include the alpha variant that emerged in the United Kingdom, the beta variant that was first identified in South Africa and the gamma strain that was first found in travelers from Brazil.

One person infectious with the original novel coronavirus on average infected about 2.5 other people. By comparison, the delta variant can infect 5-8 other people, according to virus reproduction information provided by the city of El Paso.

“This variant is more infectious in some areas, especially the areas that have low immunization rates," Ocaranza said.

The delta variation could also carries the risk of a more severe illness for patients with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, high-blood pressure and obesity, Ocaranza added.

As of July 7, the number of delta variant cases and Trauma Service Area regions of Texas where they were identified were:

  • 2 — Region B (Lubbock)
  • 7 — Region E (Dallas-Fort Worth)
  • 2 — Region P (San Antonio)
  • 7 — Region Q (Houston)
  • 7 — Region R (Galveston, East Texas Gulf Coast)

The variants can be difficult to track because testing is only done on a small sample of positive COVID-19 test results, the Texas Department of State Health Services stated, adding, "so there are more variant cases in Texas than have been reported to DSHS."

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Building a community shield

El Paso is seeing a fluctuation in the number of new cases rising-and-falling daily even as hospitalizations have remained steady at levels not seen since the start of the pandemic last year, Ocaranza said.

The number of active COVID-19 cases was at 467 as of Wednesday after falling below 300 cases three weeks ago, according to El Paso public health data.

“What we see all across the U.S. is that the people that are ending up in the hospital are people that are not vaccinated, most of the time, that’s a very common denominator that we’re seeing," Ocaranza said.

Mental health:Emotional toll looms year after El Paso's first COVID-19 death

El Pasoans need to remain cautious, especially if they have not been vaccinated and have health problems, Ocaranza said.

In an uncommon case last week, a woman in her 60s who was fully vaccinated died of COVID-19, city officials confirmed.

"It is very unusual," Ocaranza said. "We want to tell the people that this is an isolated case. This is not going be a common occurrence."

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El Pasoans should still get vaccinated even if vaccines are not 100% effective and individual health issues, including compromised immune systems, can be factors in infections, Ocaranza said.

"We have been sending messages to get vaccinated as a community because that’s the way we will be building that shield in our area against all these variants," Ocaranza said.

"We don’t want to have another outbreak of COVID how we saw in October and November," he said.

Deadly truth:Here's why the El Paso Times published this image of COVID-19's fatal toll

Last fall, El Paso was one of the deadliest hot zones for the coronavirus in the nation with medical tents set up outside hospitals and bodies stacked in refrigerated trailers outside an overflowing morgue.

More than 2,670 people have died in El Paso from COVID-19 since the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020.

Daniel Borunda may be reached at 915-546-6102; dborunda@elpasotimes.com; @BorundaDaniel on Twitter.

How to stay safe

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over and variants are circulating.

Health officials advise that steps should still be taken to slow the spread of the virus, including:

  • Get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. Use sanitizer if soap is not available.
  • Masks are recommended in crowds at indoor gatherings.
  • Non-vaccinated people should continue wearing facemasks.
  • Masks should also be used by vaccinated people with health issues, such as low immune systems, diabetes and high-blood pressure.

Why does COVID-19 impact people in different ways? Genetics play a role, study finds

Sources: CDC, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso public health authority.