Local, state and federal officials have taken unprecedented steps to control the spread of coronavirus. “Social distancing” has become a part of our lexicon.

These are all steps to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus cases, meaning to avoid sharp increases over a short period of time that could overwhelm the health-care system and endanger lives.

Projections from the Harvard Global Health Institute demonstrate why flattening the curve is so important in El Paso and southern New Mexico. A sharp rise in coronavirus infections in coming months could overwhelm the number of hospital beds and intensive-care unit beds in the region’s hospitals.

ProPublica and the New York Times last week published the data on how hospitals in communities across the country could be impacted by COVID-19.

Hospitals can’t rapidly add beds in the midst of a pandemic. Instead, they could have to ration care, which has been happening in Italy and China as COVID-19 has ravaged those countries. Health professionals could have to make difficult choices about who gets treatment and, in some cases, who gets to live.

The El Paso “hospital referral region” — which includes Las Cruces, Deming and Alamogordo in addition to El Paso — had 2,086 hospital beds and 274 intensive care beds in 2018, according to the Harvard data. Many of those beds would be filled at any given time by people with conditions other than COVID-19.

This scenario looks at what hospitals would face if the coronavirus infection rate among adults in the region reached 20%, 40% or 60%, and whether those levels were reached at six months, 12 months or 18 months.

By comparison, studies show that influenza virus affects about 9% of adults annually. But unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for coronavirus, which also has a much higher mortality rate. The Harvard public health experts said a 20% infection rate would be a conservative estimate, based on prior pandemics.

In this scenario, El Paso Matters is assuming that hospitals would open up half the hospital beds and ICU beds that normally would be occupied by people with other health conditions, a form of rationing care to prioritize COVID-19 infections.

If 20% of the region’s adults contracted COVID-19 over the next six months — about 168,000 people — area hospitals would have 63% more patients needing care than available hospital beds, according to the Harvard estimates.

But if 40% of adults fell ill with COVID-19 over six months — about 336,000 people — regional hospitals would have three times more patients needing care than available hospital beds.

On the other hand, if current efforts like widespread closures and social distancing can flatten the curve and spread cases over 12 or 18 months, area hospitals would have a more manageable situation.

Dr. Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease specialist in El Paso and chief medical officer at Del Sol Medical Center, said El Pasoans must practice aggressive measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. He didn’t immediately know the number of ICU beds in El Paso, but used 200 as a hypothetical example to illustrate the problem. (The Harvard data said El Paso and southern New Mexico have 274 ICU beds.)

“Just a little back of the envelope math tells us that if we have 800,000 people living in El Paso and only 5% get coronavirus, that’s approximately 40,000.” If 15% of those people needed intensive hospital care, which is lower than what happened in Italy, “that gives us 6,000 people who will need some some sort of high-level hospital care: 200 beds, 6,000 people.

“That’s where the importance comes; we need to flatten this curve as long as possible,” Alozie said.


El Paso Matters multimedia editor Angela Kocherga contributed to this story. It has been edited for length.

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