Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter: "We know we are at a pivotal point. ...We can continue to try and flatten the curve or we can continue to trend upward." {Screen capture)

“What time is it?” was the question implied and directly answered on Tuesday as Shelby County’s Health Department director outlined the most immediate path forward for dealing with the rising tide of COVID-19 cases in Memphis and Shelby County.

“We have an opportunity at this time for all of us to step up and do what we can as individuals to reduce transmission,” Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said at the City of Memphis / Shelby County Joint COVID Task Force briefing.

“And if we do that, then we can get back to school, back to work just as we plan as a larger community.”

The briefing yielded a new health directive that calls for closing bars and mandating restaurants shut down at 10 p.m. Bars within restaurants can still serve food. Both measures are effective at midnight Wednesday.

As of Tuesday morning, Memphis/Shelby County had 12,165 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, a one-day uptick of 146 cases. Numbers have trended upward since Memorial Day. The past week’s positivity rate exceeded 12, with the goal to be below 10.

“We know we are at a pivotal point,” Haushalter. “We can continue to try and flatten the curve or we can continue to trend upward. We’ve had to revisit what restrictions we’ve had to put in place to reduce transmission.’’

The road ahead includes looking at what additional restrictions are necessary, said Haushalter. “If we look at the guidance provided by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) during their site visit, we next will look at capacity of restaurants and likely look at whether or not gyms can continue stay open…or have to reduce capacity.”

Dr. Pedro A. Velasquez-Mieyer (Screen capture)

The updated restrictions on bars and restaurants came as Haushalter, Dr. Pedro A. Velasquez-Mieyer and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris gave a fresh push to wearing masks to help curb the virus’ spread.

“Masking is the law of the land here in our community, but, more importantly, it is one of the best ways to protect yourself from transmission, protect your family and your neighbors,” said Harris.

In Memphis-Shelby County, the wearing of mask is required by anyone over the age of 12 in public places where they cannot social distance.

Pitching the importance of wearing masks, Dr. Velasquez-Mieyer detailed that Hispanics make up about 8 percent of the local community and about 20 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Acknowledging that the virus is not likely to go away soon, Harris talked about taking long-term approaches, with a focus on “protecting those communities that are vulnerable. Those are the nursing home communities, prison communities and some of our minority communities.”

Shelby County Mayor takes off his mask as he prepares to share information at the COVID-19 briefing. (Screen capture)

Harris said the last data he had seen indicated that, “We were doing a relatively good job with respect to the African-American community and African Americans were not that vastly overrepresented in the number of confirmed cases. That is very different from the Latinx community, which is very much overrepresented based on the most recent data that I have seen.”

Harris noted that he had signed a lease on property at 2655 Dividend Dr. in Whitehaven for Health Department expansion, including about 141 new employees “exclusively devoted to confronting COVID and slowing the spread.…”

Referencing the Shelby County Penal Farm (the Shelby County Correctional Center), Harris said data-driven steps had been taken with the results released to the public.

“Today we plan to add even further protections at that site, including setting up weekly testing for staff.”

At the outset of the briefing, Haushalter said there are “some significant issues” that point to ongoing community transmission.

Shrinking hospital capacity is a growing concern for local health officials,” she said.

“As of this morning, we have our highest number of people hospitalized with COVID. That’s very concerning to us. It does let us know we have an uptick in hospitalizations that is moving toward a surge. That is being monitored closely and strategies are being put in place to make sure that individuals who need hospital beds have access to them.”