Health Department releases some data about coronavirus investigations

By , Daily Memphian Updated: December 06, 2020 1:45 PM CT | Published: December 06, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Emphasizing that it uses more than local data in making decisions that drive health directives, the Shelby County Health Department released some information sought by The Daily Memphian.

The health department has contacted 70-75% of people with confirmed coronavirus cases, or about 35,000 individuals, according to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. The COVID response team has visited 2,700 businesses, he said.

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Also on Thursday, Dec. 3, Harris and Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter met with representatives of the Memphis Restaurant Association via Zoom.

<strong>Alisa Haushalter</strong>

Alisa Haushalter

Much of the discussion surrounded health directives that restrict restaurants; some owners say the industry is bearing an unfair burden during the pandemic as they’ve been closed and/or under some restrictions since March 20.

“It’s not limited to data, but the rationale for the decision included data,” Haushalter said of reasoning behind Health Directive 15, the latest, which went into effect Nov. 23 and required more restrictions for masking in restaurants, limited party size at tables and shortened hours of operation.

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She said other factors include the local COVID-19 numbers, such as total positive tests, the positivity rate, and hospital and ICU use. Federal reports are also considered, and the White House coronavirus task force has recommended that Shelby County close restaurant dining rooms.

<strong>Bruce Randolph</strong>

Bruce Randolph

But a compromise was reached to allow them to stay open after Health Department officials met with local mayors. However, in the Dec. 3 COVID-19 Joint Task Force briefing, Dr. Bruce Randolph, the Health Department’s health officer, indicated that further restrictions might come soon as we’ve exceeded an average of 450 cases daily, a number that was a tripwire for the agency to take action.

He did not say when.

Meanwhile, Harris provided information about how many businesses have had COVID inspections since Sept. 1, but did not break the numbers down specifically to restaurants.

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“The COVID response team is actively engaged in visits and inspections to businesses,” he said by email. “They have visited 2,702 businesses. The visits are frequently as a result of a complaint. The type of business — restaurant or other — is not ordinarily a factor in the decision to make a visit.

“Additionally, as part of the Health Department’s ordinary work duties, they visit every restaurant in Memphis and Shelby County. The violations are too numerous to compile and list by your deadline.”

Some sites have been closed for violations, he said. Those are The Indulge Lounge, In Love Memphis (twice), Gold Club, Blue Monday, Mugshots, Dubai Hookah Bar, Menue Club, and Height Lounge. 

In the Zoom meeting with The Daily Memphian, Haushalter said a few restaurants have been contacted regarding the contact tracing lists they are required to keep, but Harris wrote, in response to a question about how many:

“The Health Department does not track the number of restaurant businesses contacted for contact tracing purposes. The spread of COVID is community-wide. As such, the Health Department has initiated more than 48,000 contact investigations.

“Additionally, please keep in mind that the number of restaurants contacted for contact tracing information was not part of the decision-making process for the most recent Health Directive.”

And Harris says that “since the pandemic began, the Health Department has been able to reach 70 to 75 percent of the confirmed cases (25 to 30 percent of confirmed cases could not be reached). In most cases of confirmed cases not reached, the individual did not return the phone from the Health department. Thus, approximately 35,000 individuals have received follow-up interviews.”

Slides with data showed much smaller numbers and Haushalter said that while the numbers were smaller, they represent the community at large as the sample included different demographics.

The largest study was of 1,266 people who’d had COVID-19. It’s not known if the respondents knew they had COVID-19 when they participated in activities, or if they had symptoms that they later learned were the onset of the virus.

Of the 1,266, 258 reported participating in a social activity. Of that 258, 49 reported going to a restaurant or bar. Starting in mid-September, respondents were asked a specific question about whether they had gone to a restaurant when they had symptoms or within two days prior to a positive test, and 111 said yes.

Mike Miller, who was recently elected president of the Memphis Restaurant Association, said he’d also like for people to be asked if they went to a grocery, put gas in their car, shopped at a big-box store or engaged in other public activities in addition to going to a restaurant.

But he said he thought the meeting the MRA had was positive.

“I was pleased with Mayor Harris and his level of engagement and his willingness to run point,” he said. “I think it’s a good start to more communication.

“At the end of the day, what we’re really seeking is balance in the decision-making and that requires communication.”


Shelby County Health Deparatment Alisa Haushalter Mayor Lee Harris Memphis Restaurant Association
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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