Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. received the new COVID-19 vaccine as the Shelby County Health Department began vaccinating first responders and high-risk frontline health care workers at two drive-thru vaccine locations in Shelby County earlier this week. (Twitter)

There was good news and there was bad news at Tuesday’s (Dec. 29) Shelby County Joint Task Force COVID-19 update.

Vaccinations for “1a1” individuals began on Monday. More than 800 first responders, hospital personnel, long-term facility staff, and others connected to the medical field received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Another 800 or more were expected to be vaccinated Tuesday.

The vaccine is completed in two dosages.

The bad news: COVID-19 spread was uncontrolled going into the weekend.

Because of an alarming surge in new cases, the Health Department on Dec. 21 issued a new health directive, No. 16, which went into effect Saturday (Dec. 26) and runs through Jan. 22. The directive, among other things, limits the capacity of retail outlets to 50 percent and restaurants to 25 percent.

The Shelby County Commission recently approved fines for businesses that do not comply. Businesses found in violation can be fined $50 per violation. Repeat offenders face the possibility of closure.

“Mask fine reinforcement starts today,” said Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter. “The Shelby County Commission passed an ordinance last week authorizing the Health Department to issue fines prior to closing a business.”

The new case total for Tuesday was 371, with 12 new deaths. To date, there have been 66,084 cases of COVID-19 and 861 deaths. Of those deaths, 59 percent continue to be African American.

“We need to remind businesses that entertainment and recreation venues are closed altogether, as ordered by the Dec. 26 Safer At Home Health Directive,” said Randolph. “Those are the places where there tend to be crowding and very large gatherings.”

Included in those businesses completely shut down are museums, the zoo, game rooms, theaters, hookah lounges, concert halls, pool halls and other places of leisure, Randolph said.

Restaurants must continue to be closed at 10 p.m., said Randolph. Even on New Year’s Eve when spontaneous celebrations of a new year kick off at midnight.

“Restaurants must be closed every night by 10 p.m., even on New Year’s Eve,” Randolph said. “No live performances or entertainment is allowed. No dancing, no standing, and no gathering — these are all prohibited.”

Data leading up to the post-Thanksgiving health directives and fines forced health officials in Shelby County into extreme measures to control the surge.

“Looking at a month out, the number of cases was growing exponentially,” said Haushalter. “Our hospital capacity is already being strained. Acute bed capacity is at 89 percent, and ICU bed capacity is at 93 percent. More cases lead to more deaths.”

Health officials feared the surge would force hospitalizations beyond what the countywide capacity could handle. 

Prior to the new health directive, numbers over the prior week showed a growth in cases of more than 670 daily, with at least six deaths each of those days.

County officials issued another health directive Saturday (Dec. 26) that closed movie theaters across the county, leaving only the Malco Summer Drive-In, at 5310 Summer Ave., open.

Shelby County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Bruce Randolph emphasized that employers must provide adequate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for employees. The risk must match the level of exposure in the workplace, he said.

Officials said the government has not and will not make vaccination mandatory, but the Health Department will provide everyone the answers they need to make an informed decision. 

“We need at least 70 percent of the population to be vaccinated,” said Haushalter. “Many concerns will be resolved once this happens.”

Haushalter said the Tennessee Department of Health is expected to revise who will be prioritized in this first round of vaccines, “either today or tomorrow (Wednesday, Dec. 30).”

Presently, individuals over 65 and those plagued with “morbidly chronic” conditions may be vaccinated in this first round, Haushalter said. These conditions include chronic lung, heart, kidney, and liver disease, as well as those with sickle-cell and diabetes.

For questions and appointments for vaccination, call the Health Department at: (901) 222-9000.