by Jim Coleman — 

With the first case of coronavirus in Shelby County occurring exactly a year ago, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners marked the anniversary by hearing a breakdown of COVID-19 vaccination numbers during its Monday (March 8) meeting.

Commissioners also passed a couple of key coronavirus-related items, dealing with more funding to help those facing eviction and where Shelby County Health Department nursing employees can live.

Like many communities, there have been disparities in populations affected by the pandemic and how COVID vaccinations are being administered.

For example, African Americans in Shelby Co. have only received 29.4 percent of doses. Multiracial individuals only netted 15 percent, while 45 percent of vaccinations went to whites. 

“Our demographic breakdown in terms of who received the vaccine continues to become more reflective of the community. It’s not there yet, but it’s more so,” said Health Department Chief of Epidemiology David Sweat.

The vast majority of doses have gone to senior citizens, the most vulnerable demographic. A slight majority of those 75 and older have received a shot.

The update was the first since former Shelby County Health Director Alisa Haushalter resigned amid investigations by state and federal investigations over, among other things, the mismanagement of doses and theft of doses. 

Dr. LaSonya Harris Hall, deputy chief administrative officer for Shelby County Government, will serve up to 90 days as the Health Department’s interim director as she leads the search for a permanent director. (Courtesy photo)

Tuesday (March 9) county Mayor Lee Harris announced that Dr. LaSonya Harris Hall would be interim Health Department director. 

The City of Memphis inherited the vaccination program and continues to make assessments and expand on it. 

So far, early data shows nearly 130,000 Shelby County residents have been vaccinated, which covers 17.4 percent of the goal of having 70 percent vaccinated by Sept. 1.

The Health Department continues many duties like epidemiology services, contract tracing, disease surveillance, laboratory testing, service coordination, community care coordination for individuals needing assistance during isolation or quarantine and infection control prevention inspections in nursing homes.

“All of those operations remain with the Health Department under my administration. We continue to do the work. I receive no instruction at this point on a termination date on those response activities,” said Sweat. 

The problematic sign-up system that has left many users frustrated also was addressed.

“We have really educated people in Memphis that are hitting the enter button over and over and over again. They are getting lucky if they finally get the appointment.

“A lot of older people, as you know, don’t have the ability to constantly hit the send button with Sign Up Genius. Is there a date certain with the new online format that we’ll use instead of Sign Up Genius?” asked Commissioner Mark Billingsley.

Shelby County also passed down the scheduling process to the city of Memphis. The city has made plans to transition to another system.

“My understanding was their intent was to do it by March. But I need an update by Chief (Doug) McGowan or Director (Gina)Sweat over at the Fire Department,” said the Health Department’s Sweat.  Gina Sweat and McGowan, Memphis’ chief operating officer, are heading the vaccination effort.

As vaccinations increase, so do the incidents of variant strain infections.

“We did have reported this morning that 10 additional individuals that have the UK strain variant confirmed by sequencing over the weekend. 

“We continue to have a small amount of growth every week in the percentage of people with the variant strain. We are running, right now, about 10% of the strain variants,” said David Sweat.

The commission voted 12-0 to allocate over $17 million in CARES Act funding to back an eviction settlement fund. The money will cover back rent for unemployed workers struggling to keep a roof over their heads through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The action amends the FY 2021 Grant Fund operating budget. It is retroactive to March 1 and expires on December 2021. The money will be administered by the city of Memphis.

“This item comes to us with a favorable recommendation from the committee,” said Commissioner Brandon Morrison, who chairs its Community Service Committee.

It was an add-on to the special meeting called on March 3. 

Also voting in favor were Van Turner, Michael Whaley, Mick Wright, Reginald Milton, Willie F. Brooks, Jr., David C. Bradford, Edmund Ford Jr., Amber Mills, Mickell M. Lowery, Morrison, Eddie Jones and Billingsley. Tami Sawyer was not present.

The body also voted by the same margin to exempt certain Health Department nursing employees from the requirement they be county residents. The ordinance amends the county charter. It is effective March 1 through Sept. 30, 2021.