Amid renewed pitches for area residents to be vigilant about COVID-19 safety protocols, there now is the pronouncement that by April 5 anyone 16 and up in Shelby County will be eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine shot.

“Today, there were 101 new cases reported,” Dr. Bruce Randolph, Shelby County Health Department medical officer, told The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday. “Now, whether there are variants of the virus in that number, we don’t yet know. But we are monitoring the new cases closely since about 15 percent of those tested last week showed some variants.”

The report of 101 new cases came after two days of totals below the 100 mark. Two new deaths were reported.

Gov. Bill Lee announced Monday that Tennessee soon would allow all residents 16 and older to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Tennessee had been distributing the vaccine to health care workers, first responders, senior citizens and people 16 and older who have high-risk health conditions – including cancer, hypertension, obesity and pregnancy – as well as caregivers and household residents of medically fragile children.

On Monday, two new groups became eligible, including Tennesseans 55 and older and those who work in critical infrastructure industries. After having adjusted to vaccinations for those 55 and older, the City of Memphis on Tuesday started giving shots to people 45 and up.

According to Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer, the appointment window will open on Friday (March 26) for those 16 and over to get shots. The first of those vaccinations are on track to begin the following Friday.

The x-factor is the availability of vaccine doses, with McGowan asking for “a little patience.”

In a video announcement on Monday, Lee noted that, “The federal government has asked us to make sure every adult can receive access by May 1, and Tennessee will beat that deadline.” 

Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey later told reporters that the state was able to expand eligibility ahead of schedule largely because people in rural areas have been hesitant to receive the immunization.

Piercey noted that 20 percent of vaccine appointments in western Tennessee are currently full, while half a million appointments remain open statewide.

“If you’re willing or able to drive to another county, there’s no restriction,” Piercey said, adding that the state will be working to find ways to convince hesitant rural residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Recent state data showed that about 21 percent of the total population was at least partially vaccinated against the disease. As of Monday, Tennessee had recorded 11,709 COVID-19 related deaths, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University. That death count was the 15th highest in the country overall and the 20th highest per capita at 173 deaths per 100,000 people.

The 101 new Shelby County cases Randolph reported on Wednesday followed two days of totals below 100. Two new deaths were reported.

Last week, hospitalizations for the virus totaled 32 in Shelby County. This week, 43 are hospitalized from the virus.

Randolph said whether the new cases are the original strain or one of the variants, the preventative measures are still the same.

“It’s so important not to become complacent just because you have been vaccinated,” said Randolph. “We want to keep the numbers on a downward trend. Continue to wear masks in public because you don’t know other peoples’ status –  whether or not they have been vaccinated. Avoid large crowds, and use social distancing.”

Officials are cautiously optimistic that there will be no significant rise in cases in the aftermath of wild, beach parties and other careless behavior during spring break.

“Of course, Easter is just around the corner,” said Randolph. “As more and more people get vaccinated and everyone remains diligent about staying safe, the outlook in Shelby County will grow brighter and brighter.”

Vaccinations will be offered  this weekend at a City of Memphis pop-up site in Orange Mound at Melrose High School.

Focus on veterans

This weekend, the Memphis Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center is offering COVID-19 vaccinations to all eligible veterans.

Vaccinations will be distributed at the VA main campus, located at 1030 Jefferson Ave.

You must have an appointment to receive the vaccine.

Veterans may call 901-523-8990, press 3, (or 1-800-636-8262, press 3) and stay on the line to schedule an appointment.

Vaccinations are available Monday through Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.