Ernie Mellor, president of the Memphis Restaurant Association: “All restaurants, as well as all businesses, should follow protocols, and we should be getting better at what we do. Masks are very important.” (Photo illustration: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The Shelby County Health Department has partnered with the Memphis Restaurant Association to reduce coronavirus high-risk situations created in social settings, namely bars.

The enhanced collaboration was announced as the latest numbers point to the troubling community spread of COVID-19. On Wednesday, confirmed new cases totaled 302. Thursday’s count totaled 306 new cases, 12,773 cases overall, with 208 deaths.

Dr. Alisa Haushalter (Screen capture)

“We were in the past relatively confident about our ability to handle coronavirus and its effects in Shelby County,” said Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter at Thursday’s briefing by the Memphis-Shelby COVID-19 Task Force. “Now, we are seeing our public health system being strained, our hospital capacity being strained, and testing access being strained.”

The positivity rate is at 10 percent of all those being tested and health officials would like to get that rate below 10 percent.

“At the present, 60 percent of the new cases we are seeing cannot be connected to an existing case or facility,” said Haushalter.

County statistics indicate that the target age for these cases are 25-34 years of age. The transmission is thought to remain predominantly in social settings such as bars, where a large number of people in close proximity tend to congregate.

City, county and health officials decided to re-close bars to eliminate social venues where the virus is most likely to be contracted. Restaurants this week have also been limited to operating until 10 p.m. daily. Bars that serve food may remain open, but must also close at 10 p.m.

Ernie Mellor (hogwildbbq.com)

“We are working with the Shelby County Health Department in this very trying time,” said Ernie Mellor, president of the Memphis Restaurant Association. “All restaurants, as well as all businesses, should follow protocols, and we should be getting better at what we do. Masks are very important.”

Joining health officials at the briefing Mellor said masks should be worn into an establishment and may be removed once patrons have been seated. Masks are to be put back on when leaving the restaurant, he said.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of restrictions on employers and employees in the Beale St. Historic District, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state, is the subject of ongoing talks with merchants.

Haushalter said testing sites, which had been only used at 30 percent of total capacity, are now at capacity. Young people testing positive had, for the most part, been largely asymptomatic, but that seems to be changing.

The federally-run Centers for Disease Control recently made a site visit to Shelby County after determining that “a pivotal time” was here.

“They determined to do what they could to help us flatten the curve of COVID-19 before the flu season rolls in in the fall,” Haushalter said.

Two critical issues exacerbating the daily increase of new infections are the turnaround time for test results to get back to the lab and difficulties in performing effective contract tracing. If the site of infection is unknown, identifying persons who came in contact with the infected person is impossible.

Of the positive COVID-19 cases, 64.5 percent have recovered from the virus. Data pinpoints 4,328 active cases in Shelby County. The total number of people who have been tested for the virus was 147,722 people.

The ZIP code with the highest case count is 38118, an inner-city community.

The latest data also showed 6,048 residents in quarantine. The health department continues to investigate clusters/outbreaks at several care facilities. Some facilities have been considered resolved. A cluster is considered resolved after a facility goes 28 consecutive days without identifying a new case.

“It’s going to take all of us,” said Mellor. “But we’ll get through this together. Remember, let’s everyone wear our masks and follow the other protocols which are in place. God is in control.”