The world – and certainly the borderland – has experienced climbing death tolls since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020.
A year later – with 2.7 million deaths worldwide, 537,000 in the U.S. and nearly 2,300 in El Paso on record – the increasing availability of vaccines have provided a sense of hope that the spread of the deadly virus will be under control.
Despite the progress, experts warn that there’s still too many challenges and unknowns before we can reach herd immunity – including getting vaccines in the arms of more people, responding to variations of the virus now spreading, and controlling upticks in cases as more communities abandon mask mandates and open to normal operations.
Despite the complaints about how El Paso, its elected officials and major medical centers have handled the COVID-19 outbreak and the distribution of vaccines, one physician who’s been in the midst of it all says El Paso is on the road to recovery.
Since the first cases showed up in the U.S. a little over a year ago, El Paso has seen more than 2,500 deaths and more than 123,300 known recoveries, though medical authorities believe the latter number to be substantially higher.
“As a community, we have done well, and we have showed up very well as far as our vaccine percentages per capita are concerned,” said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, who was Del Sol Medical Center’s infectious disease specialist and co-chair of El Paso’s COVID-19 task force until Feb. 28.
Having said that, Alozie thinks “we failed” when it came to addressing the high levels of fear and vaccine hesitancy in the city’s African-American and Latino communities that COVID-19 hit the hardest.
Alozie, 48, was also one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11 appointees to the state’s Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response.
It was all a wild ride that meant long days and included a bout with COVID-19 for both Alozie and his wife.
Vaccines & variants
So what’s next in the anti-COVID campaign now? Especially given the increasing availability of vaccines showing themselves to be effective against COVID-19 and the several variations of the virus spreading across the U.S. and around the world?
“It’s important to understand that the whole point of going through a pandemic and letting science reign is to get to the point where you have vaccines that in this case have exceeded our wildest initial thoughts,” Alozie said. “That should be the focus.”
Alozie said the variant that we expected to be the most dominant in the United States isn’t increasing cases in Florida and has not shown any evidence that it escapes vaccines.
“If people just keep on masking and get vaccinated when they can, I think we’re going to have a Woodstock-esque summer and can let loose after being trapped for a year.”
“If you’ve been using a mask, keep on using a mask,” he added. “If you were not going into crowded areas a week ago, why would you change that now? We’re too close to getting better than for us to go backward.”
What about herd immunity, which occurs when so many people have been exposed to COVID-19 or gotten a vaccine that the virus effectively stops spreading?
El Paso’s getting there, Alozie said, and may already be close.
The El Paso Department of Public Health reports that more than 123,300 people have recovered from COVID-19 in El Paso County.
But, Alozie said that is probably only a third of the actual total.
Then, add the 284,000 vaccines that have been administered through mid-March, plus the hundreds if not thousands going into El Paso arms regularly. That could mean much of the county’s population has already had COVID-19 or been vaccinated.
COVID-19 will stop spreading when so many people are immune that the virus can’t spread, Alozie said.
Like what other disease?
Measels, for one.
“People forget that because our kids – up until the last decade – have been so well vaccinated that most school districts have never seen a case of measles – or chickenpox,” Alozie said.