John “JJ” James Jr., a native Memphian, focused on being a traveling nurse when the pandemic broke out last year. Now he says the emotional and mental toll the resurgence is taking on health workers is palpable. (Courtesy photo)

The resurgence of COVID-19 in a morphed, more transmissible form is hitting Shelby County hard. 

“The folks getting sick now are between 18-44 (years old),” said Shelby County Health Department Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph. “They are unvaccinated, and many of them have underlying medical problems, which makes them severely at risk.” 

Randolph was referring mainly to the COVID-19 Delta variant that has spawned a national resurgence of the virus, mostly among those who have not received a COVID vaccine. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 83 percent of the new virus cases are the highly transmissible Delta variant, and some 90 percent of those among unvaccinated people.

Memphis Children’s Clinic has six locations in Shelby and DeSoto counties. Over the past seven days, 13 of those being tested for COVID-19 have come back positive. Across the state, Tennessee has reported more than 2,000 pediatric cases just in the last two weeks.

“The real tragedy is that this was all avoidable,” said Randolph. “The resurgence would be non-existent if everyone had been vaccinated. While people are acutely ill, they can’t get the vaccine. They just have to ride it out.”

Randolph said there have been some “breakthrough cases,” in which vaccinated people have contracted the virus. The breakthrough victims, however, have in most cases avoided serious illness or hospitalization. 

Randolph said in some of the new cases of vaccinated people contracting the virus, the victims have some immuno-compromised condition that has compromised their immune systems in some way.

Still, he urged everyone “to go and get vaccinated.”

In Memphis-Shelby County, the virus resurgence is reflected in the Health Department’s daily virus new-case numbers.

There were 269 new cases and five new deaths reported Wednesday; 236 new cases and two deaths Tuesday; 279 new cases and four deaths Monday; 315 new cases and one death Sunday, and 319 new cases and one death Saturday.

The CDC on Tuesday (July 27) updated its guidelines urging vaccinated people in certain areas of the country to resume wearing masks indoors.

The CDC also is recommending that everyone in the k-12 school environment mask up indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Many health experts have recommended the use of masks to protect against the Delta variant. Masks are especially recommended for children who are too young to be vaccinated.

“While we will not likely return to the masking mandate stage, the Health Department strongly endorses the new CDC guidelines,” said Randolph. “We feel that the best safety measure, regardless of what a person’s vaccination status is, (people) should make a personal decision to revive mask-wearing indoors when out in public.”

Randolph said the spiking numbers of hospitalizations with the most recent resurgence of the virus will continue to take a toll on healthcare workers everywhere.

JJ’s story

John “JJ” James Jr., a native Memphian who was just beginning his nursing career when the pandemic broke out last year, decided to be a traveling nurse, helping out in cities where COVID-19 hit especially hard.

“I am working in Atlanta right now,” James told The New Tri-State Defender this week. “Hospital admissions are moving up again. Whether it is the original coronavirus, or the Delta strain, or the newest Lamda strain, those who have not been vaccinated are getting really sick. Many of them are young people.”

James said the emotional and mental toll the resurgence is taking on health workers is palpable.

“The resurgence is concerning and heartbreaking,” said James. “I am seeing my colleagues quitting their jobs because of mental health. They are just saying, ‘I can’t do this again.’ It’s happening more and more as ICUs begin to fill up again.”

James said before he went to Atlanta, he worked in California. His experience is that those who were getting the sickest and dying initially are the same ones who are susceptible to COVID-19 this time around.

“I worked in an area that was largely Hispanic, about 85-90 percent,” said James. “Most of those who were getting sick and dying were of Hispanic descent because of underlying health conditions and lack of medical care overall. 

“In Atlanta, African Americans are getting sick and dying from COVID-19, the same as last time. It’s hard to watch because, now, we have vaccines.”

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