Shelby County Schools was busy offering COVID-19 testing for employees and students this week at the Board of Education. The messaging pitch included this: "By getting tested, you protect those you love and everyone around you." (Photo: SCS Twitter)

Shelby County is riding a huge contagious wave of the Omicron variant, rendering thousands sick, mostly with mild symptoms and shorter quarantine times.

Between Dec. 30 and Wednesday (Jan. 5), Memphis/Shelby County has averaged 2,351.7 new cases per day, according to the Memphis Shelby County Health Department.

There were 15 COVID-19 related deaths over the same period.

Statewide, one in every three (34 percent) COVID-19 test recently reported to the Tennessee Health Department was positive, according to state health officials.

Health Department officials said people are testing positive for the virus’ Omicron, sending the positivity rate to more than 40 percent in the first week of the new year. 

“Numbers tell the story about how contagious the Omicron variant really is,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, Health Department medical officer. “The positivity rate for those tested is 43.15 percent, up from the 22 percent on Dec. 29. These percentages are especially alarming when you consider that just a couple of months ago, the positivity rate was four percent.”

While symptoms are milder with the Omicron variant, the fatigue, muscle aches, fever, congestion, cough and runny nose are still concerning. 

Quarantining at least five days is recommended for those infected. According to health officials, the loss of taste and smell are not as commonly reported as with the Delta variant or original COVID-19 strain. 

The less-severe-but-more-contagious-variant has sent infection numbers through the roof, but global health officials say the world could see an end to COVID-19 in 2022.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic will end in 2022, but only on one condition — that health disparity and inequality end.

Ghebreyesus released a statement Dec. 31, stating that only a unified effort worldwide will end COVID-19.

“As the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am confident that this will be the year we end it — but only if we do it together,” Ghebreyesus said.

All countries must focus on vaccinating more and more of their populations,” Ghebreyesus said. “We need all countries to work together to reach the global target of vaccinating 70 per cent of people in all countries by the middle of 2022.”

Randolph said only 57.8 percent of Shelby County residents have been vaccinated. The targeted number of county vaccinations is 700,000 residents. 

“When we say count those who have been vaccinated, that number also includes people who have only had one shot of Pfizer or Moderna,” Randolph said. “Not only is that second shot important, but the booster shot is critical in fighting the Omicron variant.”

A booster may be administered five months after the second shot, Randolph said. For those who took the J&J vaccine, one shot represents full vaccination. Boosters may be given in five months, and health officials say mixing and matching vaccines are allowed.

“What worked last year are the same things that work now,” said Randolph. “Getting fully vaccinated and taking the booster, wearing a mask while inside a public building, and being tested are all important tools in helping to eradicate the virus.”

The Health Department opened temporary testing sites over the New Year’s Eve weekend. Area drug stores and other designated sites continue to offer testing. Vaccinations are still being administered by the health department.

Randolph said many who are showing up for vaccinations have already taken one shot, or they are getting a booster.

“We are encouraging those who have never taken a vaccination to come in and get it,” Randolph said. “We will see our infection numbers go down as everyone takes the vaccine and commit to wearing masks in public spaces, even after taking the vaccine.”

Meanwhile, the Omicron surge is having an impact on the people’s daily lives.

For example, LeMoyne-Owen College and Christian Brothers University have  joined Rhodes College in delaying spring semester in-person classes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Spring semester classes for LOC begin Jan. 10 and continue remotely until Jan. 24. Classes at CBU begin Jan. 15 and continue remotely until Jan. 31.

Rhodes classes will start Jan. 12, but classes will begin remotely before tentatively beginning in-person Jan. 31, depending on whether the virus surge continues or abates.

Also, Southwest Tennessee Community College announced Wednesday (Jan. 5) classes will be held virtually Jan. 18-24 when students return for the spring semester. 

Shelby County Schools students returned to classes Monday (Jan. 3) after winter break with SCS officials preparing to expand in-school testing as the surge continues.

SCS, beginning Jan. 17, will test participating students and staff weekly. 

Supt. Dr. Joris Ray emphasized, in a New Year’s Day letter to district families and staff, the district’s safety protocols – like masking and social distancing when possible – remain in place.

(For more information on getting a vaccine, call Shelby County Health Department at: 901-222-9000.)