“The Delta variant is more transmissible, but those who have been vaccinated are fairly well protected,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director of the Shelby County Health Department.

Tennessee has the dubious distinction as the state with the largest increase of new COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, as of Tuesday (July 13).

 Tipton County, the county just north of Shelby, ranked as the number-one county in the entire nation for new cases.

Doctors across the country have been warning about an explosion of cases in the Mid-South, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.

New numbers in daily cases do not bode well for Shelby County’s “100 Days Under 100 Cases,” which kicked off June 25.

Aug. 10 would have marked the 100th day, had cases remained below 100.

“Last month, our seven-day rolling average was in the upper 20s as it relates to new cases,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director of the Shelby County Health Department. “Now the seven-day rolling average is 113, and the positivity rate has gone from .87 to 1.4.”

In Shelby County, the COVID unit at Methodist Hospital has reopened as the Delta variant tears through the community. The real tragedy, said Randolph, is that this spike in new cases is preventable.

“All the vaccines are highly effective against this Delta strain,” said Randolph, “We are doing all we can in Shelby County to continue to encourage people to take the vaccine. Nationally, 99 percent of the deaths are among those who have not been vaccinated. Most of those deaths were preventable.”

According to the CDC, the Delta variant is responsible for more than 50 percent of new cases across the country. It has now become the dominant coronavirus, beating out the original strain.

Although there is reason for some concern, Shelby County, declared weeks ago to be more than 70 percent immune, is faring far better than the rest of the state.

In the last 14 days, Tennessee has seen a 400 percent jump in new COVID-19 cases, Mississippi is seventh with a 159-percent increase in positive cases, and Arkansas ranks 14th, with a 124 percent spike in new cases.

Tennessee’s vaccination rate is 38 percent. Mississippi is 33 percent and Arkansas sits at 35 percent.

“At this point, we have to step back and call for people to take individual responsibility,” said Randolph. “I don’t see us going back to the mandates. We have vaccines now. We have provided the information about how the virus is transmitted.

“We have let Shelby Countians know how to protect themselves. So, if a person is deadest on not taking the vaccine, he or she must continue taking the safety measures we have specified to remain healthy.”

Dr. Jeff Warren, a city council member who serves on the Memphis-Shelby County COVID Task Force, expressed sympathy for the medical personnel who have to “do this all over again.” 

“There’s nothing worse than having young people, or people in the middle of their lives, drop dead from something that could have been prevented,” said Warren, who is a primary care specialist.

Randolph surmised that some people are waiting for the vaccines to become fully licensed and upgraded for emergency use authorization. Others, he said, are just not going to take a vaccine at all.

“We have to respect every person’s decision,” said Randolph. “We acknowledge and respect their right to make their own health decisions. But if taking the vaccine is not an option, unvaccinated persons must continue to use the safety protocols that were in place ⸺ wearing masks, washing hands frequently, keeping at least six feet away from others in public places and avoiding poorly ventilated indoor spaces.”

For those who want the vaccine, Randolph said there still is convenient access to receiving the shots. Pharmacies, private physicians and other providers are still administering the vaccine.

“The Delta variant is more transmissible, but those who have been vaccinated are fairly well protected,” said Randolph. “Our numbers are going in the wrong direction, but the answer is simple: get the vaccine, if you have not already been vaccinated.”

Children, 12 and older, are eligible to receive the vaccine.

However, Tennessee government’s top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health, was recently fired because some Republican state legislators objected to her outreach efforts to encourage adolescents to get the COVID vaccine.

Consequently, the Tennessee Department of Health said it will halt all adolescent vaccine outreach – not just for coronavirus, but all diseases, according to an internal report and agency emails obtained by the Nashville Tennessean. 

Shelby County health officials, however, said they will continue child vaccination outreach efforts in Memphis and Shelby County.

Tennessee’s six urban counties – Madison, Shelby, Knox, Davidson, Hamilton and Sullivan – have health departments that operate autonomously from the state health department. 

For information on where the vaccine is being given, call the health department at: (901) 222-shot (7468), between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.