Mass testing for COVID-19 was conducted at four area sites over the weekend. (Photo: Shelby County Health Department on Twitter)

by James Coleman —

The elements are hauntingly familiar – rising COVID-19 numbers, the possibility of a vaccine’s mass distribution still unfolding and a looming holiday (in this case Thanksgiving) with the potential for exacerbating the coronavirus’ spread.

Against that backdrop local health officials issued new safety protocols and with that comes the angst about restrictions and the worry about compliance.

On Monday (Nov. 23) during a meeting with the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, Shelby County Health Department officials sought to clarify new rules mandating wearing masks in restaurants and other establishments.

The new directives call for restaurants to require diners to wear masks except for when they are eating. Establishments must also end indoor dining at 10 p.m. and seat at no more than 50 percent capacity.

“We are trying to affect behavior that we know exists by the inspections that we do. People are not wearing the mask the whole time they are in the restaurant. And they are taking it off literally the moment they get to the table.

“The takeaway message is the mask should be on except for when you are eating and drinking. But not necessarily taking it on and off, on and off,” said Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter.

Restaurants are permitted to seat outdoor dining, as well as provide curbside pickup and delivery after 10 p.m.

“After 10 and 11 people tend to drink more, particularly on Friday and Saturday. They also tend to be more loud, less likely to wear their mask and pose a risk. Setting curfew is an evidence-based strategy to reduce the number of people who may be exposed or able to transmit,” said Haushalter.

The number of new virus cases has been rising steady in recent weeks.

Tuesday (Nov. 24), there were 377 new COVID-19 cases and two new deaths, a sign that the region continues to experience increased community transmission.

The county has recorded 45,952 cases of COVID-19 this year, including 4,815 active cases as of Tuesday, up from 4,125 active cases reported the day before, according to the Health Department.

Mass testing for COVID-19 was conducted at four area sites over the weekend, with health officials urging asymptomatic individuals to get tested. The asymptomatic testing appeal yielded more than 2,600 tests. The results reflected about one in 10 registering positive.

During the first wave of the virus in the spring, hours for restaurants were limited to 10 p.m.  The move had positive results.

“When we went to 12 things began to pick up,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, health officer for the Health Department, who also said the changes were a compromise between closing businesses and doing nothing at all.

“As I have noted the past several weeks, we continue to trend upward in our cases in Shelby County. Over the past week we have averaged about 395 cases per day,” Haushalter said. “We anticipate the numbers will go up after Thanksgiving.”

Service workers have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Due to the directives, many establishments have cut staff – the ones that have survived, that is.

“We are hearing from so many hospitality workers that have become unemployed and negatively affected by the virus, probably more than any,” said Commissioner Mark Billingsley.

Fitness centers also drew scrutiny, in large part because many have chosen not wear a mask while exercising. Strenuous activity also increases and sometimes strengthens respiration. They too were not spared from the mask mandate.

“There have been significant complaints about gym facilities, where people aren’t masking or they take off their mask thereafter,” said Haushalter.

Other transmission hotspots mentioned during the meeting were places of worship and schools. Extracurricular activities, like sports, were mostly to blame for the increase in school infections. The mandates apply to neither.

The measures are to stem the rising tide of infections until the arrival of a vaccine.

“Our hope rests with the vaccine. The state has informed us that we shall be receiving a vaccine soon, probably after the 15th of December,” said Randolph.

Recently, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca, as well as Oxford University announced the results of trials for their vaccines.

All report efficacy rates at or above 90 percent. Mass production and distribution efforts are underway.

The Shelby County Health Department will receive more than 22,000 doses. Area hospitals will also receive doses.

The Tennessee Department of Health has put together a plan for its distribution. The first vaccinations will go to those on the frontlines and the most vulnerable, including healthcare workers, police, fire fighters, and residents of long-term care, assisted living and disabled facilities. Teachers, correctional officers and others at risk will follow.

Afterward, it will make its way to the general public. It will be free of charge.

“The Health Department will be working closely with the state and with these healthcare systems to ensure that everyone receives the vaccine, ensure that it is distributed in an equitable manner and encourage people to take it.

“We are hoping we have at least 71 percent. We need that or greater in order for the vaccine to help,” said Randolph.