Corona Crisis in America: The Metropolitan Area to Watch

The battle to control the coronavirus in the U.S is being led by 50 governors and the D.C. mayor, but ultimately it is at the local level where decisions are often the most consequential. Among large counties, the crisis is most severe in El Paso.

4 minute read

November 3, 2020, 11:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

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Texas, having experienced the summer coronavirus resurgence that devastated much of the South and West, is not among the worst-hit states in what some view as the third peak in the pandemic in the United States. While infections are increasing in the Lone Star State, they are well below the mid-July peak of almost 10,500 average daily new infections. The 7-day average was 6,734 on Nov. 1.

The top 10 states in case incidence listed by The New York Times U.S. coronavirus tracker on Nov. 2 are all in the Midwest and Mountain West, with Alaska the exception.

Metropolitan and micropolitan areas

On a regional level, Wisconsin dominates, claiming half of the 20 spots in the Times "where the outbreak is worst now" category by their metro/micro area tracker on Nov. 2, with three in North Dakota and two in Texas.

The El Paso metropolitan area, composed of El Paso and Hudspeth counties, stands out on this list due to its population: 844,000, and its rank: #3 after Minot, N.D. (pop. 76,000) and Beaver Dam, Wis. (pop. 88,000), respectively.

The next most populous metro areas are Green Bay, Wisconsin (323,000), and Lubbock, Texas (322,000), #s 15 and 16, respectively, on the top-twenty list.

El Paso is also ranked #3 in the category for "where there may be bad news ahead," (where new cases are rising the fastest, on a population-adjusted basis), after Minot and Sterling, Ill. (pop. 55,100), respectively.

How bad is the outbreak in El Paso?

As noted in Sunday's post ("We are Entering the Steep Slope of the Epidemic Curve,") hospitals in El Paso are being overwhelmed with COVID patients due to the incredibly high level of infection in the area. "Auxiliary medical units (AMUs) are being set up at local hospitals and one such field hospital is also up at the El Paso Convention Center to handle the surge, reported Julian Resendiz for Border Report on Oct. 26.

El Paso, the ninth-largest of the 254 counties in the Lone Star State, had the third-highest COVID case incidence in the state on Nov. 1, according to the Times, after San Saba (pop. 6,000) and Culberson (pop. 2,000) counties. Daily average cases during the last 7 days were 184 cases per 100,000 people.

By comparison, consider the daily averages on Nov. 1 for:

  • Texas: 23 per 100k
  • U.S.: 25 cases per 100k
  • North Dakota (highest in the U.S.): 137 per 100k
  • Belgium (world's highest case incidence): 170 per 100k

Public health experts at Harvard and Brown universities advise that when daily new infections exceed 25 per 100k, stay-at-home orders are necessary to contain the virus.

What to do about it?

"El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego [D] ordered a two-week shutdown Thursday of nonessential businesses in this border area to help curb the record-breaking rise of COVID-19 cases that have overwhelmed hospitals," reports Julián Aguilar for The Texas Tribune (source article) on Oct. 29. County judges in Texas are elected officers who preside over commissioners courts that serve as the governing bodies for the 254 counties.

"Effective Thursday, October 29, 2020 at 11:59 PM MDT... the County Judge of El Paso County, Texas...orders that all individuals currently living in El Paso County, Texas to stay at home or at their place of residence...," states Section 1 of the 16-page executive order [pdf] that "expires on Wednesday, November 11, 2020 at 11:59 PM MST." The purpose: "to reduce the infection rate of the people considered at risk that will require hospitilization [sic] and to limit death from complications of covid-19."

Four days earlier, Samaniego ordered a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and a $250 fine for not wearing face masks, noted Resendiz in Border Report. 

Enforcement will be a vital component,” Samaniego said. “We focused on education, we focused on compliance, but as you can see the numbers have not gone down.”

County vs. City and State

"But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's [R] office swiftly challenged the judge's ability to issue the shutdown, setting up a potential legal battle, and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo [R] said Samaniego never consulted him about that plan," adds Aguilar.

Samaniego's order comes after Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order in September allowing some nonessential businesses to reopen to 75% capacity.

"El Paso County Judge Samaniego has no authority to shut down businesses in El Paso County," Paxton's office said in a tweet. "This is a direct violation of @GovAbbott’s executive order. My office is quickly exploring all legal actions."

Resendiz also reports on the corona crisis on the opposite side of the Rio Grande River from El Paso, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where the virus is also raging.

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