The intersection of protest and safety was on the face of this protester at a staging ground in Overton Park. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Shelby County Health Department officials said last week that a spike in COVID-19 cases were a concern, but not unexpected.

Coming off of Mother’s Day and Memorial Day weekend, travel and outdoor activities in close proximity might warrant a noticeable increase 14 days out.

But Tuesday’s COVID-19 Joint Task Force update carried a different tone. The total cases of coronavirus reached an alarming 6,119, with 133 deaths.

Those numbers represented a 24-hour increase of 192 new cases and six more fatalities overnight.

Statewide, The Tennessee Department of Health announced there were at least 27,575 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state as of Tuesday afternoon, up from 26,944 on Monday, including 435 total deaths.

“Although we are concerned about these numbers, the real concern is the rate of new cases,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, Shelby County Health Officer.

“We are analyzing the reasons for this increase, and more testing could be a factor.”

Nearly 90,000 people have been tested in Shelby County. However, health officials must consider the grim possibility that new clusters of community spread may be happening throughout the county.

When health and government officials deemed it safe to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of the Back to Business reopening plan, county residents were admonished not to be lax on the safety precautions that leveled the increase in COVID-19 cases. Data indicated that community spread had been reasonably contained.

But Tuesday’s numbers represented a setback that makes it doubtful that Phase 2 will only extend over the course of 21 days.

Randolph said in a phone interview after the update that counties may have to look at the possibility of issuing mandatory facial coverings in public spaces.

“I think Dr. Jeff Warren has been looking at a mandatory ordinance,” said Randolph. “We don’t want to have to do that, but mandates may become necessary to control the spread.”

Warren serves on the Memphis City Council. Last week, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer proposed a mandatory order that passed in an initial vote.

County Attorney Marlinee C. Iverson subsequently forwarded a letter to the County Commission stating that neither city nor county officials could mandate facial coverings in public, but that the Shelby County Health Department could.

“We have to think about what the demographics show,” Randolph said. “The increase in new cases will disproportionately effect black and brown people. We’ve seen a marked increase of the coronavirus among the Hispanic population.”

Randolph said officials are also watching locally and nationally how protests across the country will affect the numbers.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked an outcry against law enforcement’s use of excessive force, particularly against African Americans.

“It is important to go back to what we were doing when the safer-at-home order was in place,” said Randolph. “People wore facial coverings and adhered more to social distancing. We must not get relaxed because everyone is back out now.”

Randolph said the initial recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must be carefully followed if we are going to get a handle on community spread:

  • Wear a facial covering in all public spaces and when you are in close proximity to another person.
  • Adhere to the six-foot, social distancing rule.
  • Do thorough hand-washing for 20 seconds, with sanitizing soap and clean surfaces in the home with disinfectant cleaners. Keep hand sanitizer in several places for frequent use.
  • Keep hands away from the face, particularly the nose and mouth areas.