In the midst of flu season, Shelby County’s COVID-19 infections remain steady, according to the director of the Shelby County Health Department.

“We are fairly stable with a slight increase in the last week. We are running about 220 to 230 cases per day,” said Dr. Lisa Haushalter, who said numbers of cases may fluctuate due to the state updating its IT system.

Wednesday (Nov. 11), the Health Department reported 187 new COVID-19 cases and five new deaths, bringing the number of COVID-19-related deaths to 594. There have been 40,868 cases of the virus this year.

Tuesday saw a spike of 691 new cases locally.

One reason for the continuing high number of infections is people ignoring mild symptoms that are similar to a cold or the flu while continuing with their day-to-day routines.

Measures like mask wearing and social distancing have been largely adopted in the county.

“We’ve actually experienced three cases in the Health Department last week. They are not related to each other. But I can tell you those individuals had mild signs and symptoms that they minimized; very much like we have been saying publicly,” said Haushalter. “That’s the place we want to continue to focus. Individuals that have any signs or symptoms of respiratory infection or any flu-like symptoms, or anything that is unusual for them, they need to immediately get tested.”

The recent announcement by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that the company had developed a COVID-19 vaccine with a 90 percent success rate in trials also was addressed.

“As it comes in place through the national stockpile, there are already plans in place with the state Health Department. … Local health systems are being asked to play a role as well. Essentially, anyone who can give vaccines will be asked to partner,” Haushalter said.

First responders like healthcare workers, EMS, firemen and police would be at the front of the line to receive the vaccine.

They will be followed by the more vulnerable, such nursing home residents and the elderly, or those with comorbidities like diabetes and cancer. Finally, the vaccine would be available to the general population.

“Even based on the good news we heard this morning, we would not anticipate a vaccine until next year. There is a lot of additional testing that has to occur before the vaccine is ready for the market,” said Haushalter.

Meanwhile, flu vaccinations are still being recommended. The seasonal flu shares many symptoms with the coronavirus. Flu vaccination is also viewed as a dry run for the eventual delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine, which will require mobilization of state and local health departments, hospitals and businesses that provide vaccinations. Two doses will need to be administered to provide immunity.

“Then we quickly mobilize with partners to be able to administer the vaccine. That essentially means everyone gets reassigned to give vaccines until we have exhausted that,” said Haushalter.

Free flu shots will be available on Nov. 19 at the Lamar Emmissions Station at 1720 RKS Commercial Cove and the Millington Health Clinic located at 8225 US-51. Both locations also offer COVID-19 tests.

For days and hours of the two drive-thru, flu vaccination locations, call the Shelby County Health Department at: 901-222-9000.

“Aggressive intervention”

 Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris kicked off Tuesday’s (Nov. 10) COVID-19 Task Force update by calling for more uniformity and “aggressive intervention” to curb the pandemic from state officials.

“We are still in the fight against COVID,” Harris said.  “We must continue the course. This is not two viruses — a rural virus and an urban virus. This is one virus, and we must all work together to mitigate the spread.”

Harris’ call for more action came as the Shelby County Health Department reported new cases of the virus continue to rise.

Brownsville, Tenn. Mayor Bill Rawls joined Lee in pleading for caution and greater uniformity directed at the state level.

“It is critical that all the counties continue to collaborate,” Rawls said. “We need a statewide mask mandate, but until them we must keep working together until more intervention comes from the state.”

Rawls cited a study at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, which showed counties in the state that had aggressive interventions in place, such as mask mandates in public places, experienced approximately half the fatalities from COVID-19.

“Please take an abundance of caution and postpone family gatherings until next year,” Rawls said. “During the Fourth of July holiday, Haywood County (where Brownsville is the county seat) had a great surge of new infections because cluster outbreaks from family gatherings quickly turned to into cluster outbreaks in the community.”

Rawls said, given that there is an upcoming holiday season coupled with flu season, gatherings should be put off until next year.

“COVID-19 is a marathon,” said Rawls. “It is not a sprint. And, although we are tired of the restrictions, we must continue to take an abundance of caution.”

Amy Garner, public information officer with West Tennessee Healthcare, said the system’s seven hospitals in Shelby, Fayette, and Tipton Counties, care for about 15 percent of the state’s total hospitalizations.

“We take care of COVID patients across 18 counties,” Rawls said. “A month ago, there were 67 patients in our hospitals. Today, there are better than 100 — 122, I believe. Also, patients in need of ventilation are increasing.”

Shelby County Health Department Deputy Director David Sweat said there is still plenty of testing capacity not being used. He said individuals, who are positive, continue to go about their day as if they did not have the virus.

“One out of three people who do have the virus are going about their normal day, to work and school, and activities of daily living,” said Sweat. “This is the main reason for the uncontrolled spread of the virus.”

The positivity rate of tests being taken is presently at 8.8 percent,

Dr. Bruce Randolph urged those who feel sick and are showing symptoms get tested and remain at home until test results come back.

“Right now, only 35-50 percent of testing capacity in Shelby County is being utilized,” Randolph said. “Anyone who feels sick should go to any of the testing locations and stay home from work or school.”

(By James Coleman and Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell.)