Greater Memphis’ relationship with the COVID-19 virus mostly continued to deteriorate this week, with suggestions that even worse may be ahead depending upon decisions about how to slow the spread and individual adherence to any such measures.
On Wednesday, Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Michelle Taylor announced a pending change to the existing health directive, which goes no further than recommending the wearing of masks in public, indoor spaces. Now on tap is a universal mask mandate.
The new, in-door mask requirement will go into effect in Shelby County on Friday (Aug. 20) at 7 a.m. The intent is to slow the spread of the coronavirus’ Delta variant and relieve stress on area hospitals, according to an alert on the health department’s website.
Masks at outdoor events will remain optional, but are recommended for unvaccinated people.
Meanwhile, Shelby County Schools’ existing mask mandate remains in effect, said Supt. Dr. Joris Ray. And that is the case despite Gov. Bill Lee earlier this week issuing an executive order allowing parents to opt out of masking for their children in school.
As local officials huddled and conferred about next steps, on Wednesday 448 new cases were reported, and seven deaths. Acute care beds registered at 94 percent capacity; ICU beds at 95 percent. The total number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized was 643.
Lee dropped word of his executive order, No. 84, on Monday. It hit after public school systems in Memphis and Nashville earlier had mandated the wearing of masks in all of their respective schools. The governor’s move kicked off a firestorm of negative reactions by school, city and county officials.
The Memphis City Council approved a resolution Tuesday opposing Lee’s executive order. That same day, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ Black Caucus announced its opposition to Lee’s opt-out order, with Tami Sawyer, the caucus’ chairperson, affirming support for SCS’s mask mandate, which was embraced as in place to protect the safety of students.
Lee’s order drove thousands of Tennessee physicians, nurses and health care professionals to draft a letter on Tuesday petitioning him to reconsider. However, there was no indication that Lee, who has resisted a Republican-pushed call for a special session to counter local mask mandates, was considering a course change.
Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Stephen C. Threlkeld, who is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the Memphis area, said hospital numbers have risen so dramatically that there are more ICU patients than there are available ICU beds. On Wednesday, he sounded the alarm about a growing number of patients in their 20s, 30s and teens in ICU beds on ventilators.
The acute nature of the local situation got an additional spotlight as several suburban school districts released figures on Tuesday of students “opting out” of wearing masks following Lee’s executive order. That same day, 241 students in Collierville schools were listed as in quarantine.
Then came Wednesday and the announcement by US health officials and medical experts that booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be offered this fall, subject to authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration and sign off from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We are prepared to offer booster shots for all Americans, beginning the week of September 20, and starting eight months after an individual’s second dose,” read the statement issued by public health and medical experts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“At that time, the individuals who were fully vaccinated earliest in the vaccination rollout, including many health care providers, nursing home residents, and other seniors, will likely be eligible for a booster,” the HHS experts detailed in the statement.
“We would also begin efforts to deliver booster shots directly to residents of long-term care facilities at that time, given the distribution of vaccines to this population early in the vaccine rollout and the continued increased risk that COVID-19 poses to them.”
According to county health officials, new COVID-19 cases are consistently positive among the majority of unvaccinated individuals.