Masks -- properly worn -- were in order as Kwanzaa in July was celebrated at the Slave Haven Museum. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

A sobering milestone was passed this week with the Shelby County Health Department reporting that the total of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County had topped 20,000.

With 362 cases reported from the previous 24 hours, Wednesday’s total registered 20,056, with 14386 listed as recovered cases. The death toll stood at 268.

On Thursday, the total of reported cases was 20,382, with 326 new cases reported since Wednesday’s update. Five more deaths were reported, bringing that grim total to 273.

Health Department officials continue to point out that the numbers reported daily are the results of several days of testing. At Tuesday’s briefing by the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Joint Task Force, Dr. Bruce Randolph, the Health Department’s medical director, said labs are trying to get rid of their backlog and bring their test results current.

While wait times for lab results have been as long as 7-14 days, Randolph said results for tests are down to three days. The goal is to get results within 24-48 hours from labs.

As of Wednesday the positivity rate for Shelby County was 10.2 percent, having edged beyond the 10 per cent mark that Health Officials have said is their goal to stay below.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said wearing masks is the new normal, although there is nothing normal about what is happening.

As he once again championed the wearing of masks as one of the best strategies to help combat COVID-19 spread, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris on Tuesday said, “The high numbers indicate that we are not out to the woods yet. There is still lots of work to be done, and the outlook will probably darken before it abates.”

Harris also voiced his support for a state-wide masking mandate.

“Some of our neighbors and partners don’t have the power to limit how people move in public,” Harris said. “So our borders will not allow our transmission rate to ever go to zero percent. A state-wide mandate would remedy that.”

Harris mentioned briefly the recent commitment of Shelby County Schools to open with a completely virtual school model. Noting that children need to be kept safe, he added that they also need to develop, grow, and socialize.

Gabby Dowdy, a student at the University of Memphis School of Public Health, presented results from a study on the efficacy of mask-wearing. The study showed since the mandate has been in effect, mask adherence has improved significantly, particularly in the age group from 2-18.

But even post-mandate, Hispanics showed the lowest number of adherence, with 34 percent, and Asians showing the highest level of compliance, with 91 percent.

However, only 60 percent demonstrated correct mask usage.

In a final word of caution, Harris stressed wearing masks correctly.

“Please don’t wear the mask on your chin like this,” Harris said, pulling a mask down on his chin, “or on your ear like this,” showing his mask hanging from his ear. “Masks must cover the mouth and nose to protect the wearer.”