In a week, we’ll know if COVID case rise is a blip or fourth surge

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 16, 2021 9:12 AM CT | Published: April 15, 2021 12:52 PM CT

The steady rise in COVID cases – including 262 reported Thursday, April 15 – puts Shelby County in a holding pattern.

While cases are up and the reproductive rate is the highest it’s been in months, it could be a blip from Easter gatherings and travel.

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Or it could be a sustained rise in case numbers that started last week. If that is the case, this is the beginning of the fourth wave.

The junction happens just as the latest health directive goes into effect Saturday, opening buffets, bringing back indoor dancing and loosening restrictions on who needs approval for putting on events and festivals.

Dancing’s back — officially — and so are buffets and festivals

“We won’t know whether it’s temporary or not until we see a few more days’ worth of data and see if the numbers return back to a lower level,” said David Sweat, deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department.

“If we go back to 200-plus cases a day, that would be a pretty dramatic increase from a couple of weeks ago,” he said Thursday. “We have seen oscillations through the epidemic ... including blips that subside.”

Two weeks ago, cases were averaging 100 a day. Last week, they were up to 130 a day.

If the numbers do not decline, another health directive could be out in two weeks instead of a month, and it likely will not include the ease in masking restrictions Dr. Bruce Randolph alluded to on Tuesday, April 13.

Health Directive No. 20, which was issued Wednesday and goes into effect Saturday, does not include substantial changes that would pose increased risk of transmission, Sweat said.

The biggest change, he said, allows buffets to reopen. Because COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, the Health Department sees little threat in people serving themselves while masked in buffet lines.

The U.K. variant, which is 50% more contagious and also a more virulent strain of virus, has been steadily growing in Shelby County since it arrived in early February. Last week, it dominated in specimens sent for sequencing.

The U.K. strain is controlled by the vaccine, but its contagion is adding urgency to the race for vaccination.

Based on Health Department data, the ZIP codes with the highest density of variants also have lowest level of vaccination. 

Vaccination levels are higher in the eastern part of the county and around hospitals.

“We can tell, just looking at the difference between where vaccine has been most heavily taken advantage of, that those areas are having a better experience right now in the epidemic,” Sweat said.

More than 30% of the people in Shelby County have received at least one vaccine, including 68% of those age 75 and older. And 19,000 people in the lowest age category, 16-24, have received at least one dose.

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The City of Memphis now has capacity to immunize 50,000 to 60,000 people in public drive-through sites each week. Last week, it gave 33,000 shots, according to Gina Sweat, head of the Memphis Fire Department.

Another 9,000 were given in clinics and pharmacies.

“As the City of Memphis, we’re not going to quit,” Sweat said. “We’re going to do; we’re going to remove every barrier.”

The average wait time is 11 minutes, Sweat said, noting that many people wait longer in line for lunch.

As an example of the pivots the city has made to accommodate citizens, it lifted appointments for the 12 hours of operation Wednesday, April 14, at the Pipkin Building site and saw uptake improve.

“So, we decided to extend that to, well, wide open all week. For the rest of the week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Sunday, no appointment is needed; no ID,” she said. “Just come out and get your shot. If you have an appointment that you had already made, we will honor those appointments and make sure that you get in and out of there as fast as possible.”

The first 2,500 people on Friday and Saturday will receive $20 gift cards to Kroger or Walmart.

MFD vaccinators will be also be giving shots at the University of Memphis’ Friday Night Stripes spring football game Friday, April 16. The first 500 to get shots will get $10 vouchers for the concessions stand.

New health directive 

Under the new health directive, landlords are required to provide tenants information about resources to help them before they file eviction notices.

Specifically, the rules protect against tenants who may be in isolation or quarantine from being put out of their homes.

The Health Department will be made aware, Randolph said, “so we can make the appropriate plans and the appropriate resources available for those individuals who need to be in isolation or quarantine.”

While buffets will be allowed to open beginning Saturday, they will now have signage directing patrons to hand-sanitizing stations. 

Indoor dancing will be allowed in bars and clubs. The dancers must be masked and be six feet distance from other couples.

Under the new directive, only festivals or gatherings of 500 more people require advance approval from the Health Department and written plans for how protocols will be enacted.

Under the previous directives, all festivals and gatherings required approval.

“We feel the health directive is very clear in terms of what is required of everyone who is planning to have an event,” Randolph said. “To be frank and honest, the massive number of requests we were receiving exceeded the ability of staff to do them in a timely fashion. Most of the plans submitted to us reflected the health directive.

“We have a COVID response unit that is going out and providing technical assistance and providing education, particularly when we get complaints and need some enforcement. We think our time is better spent on educating people and providing technical assistance,” Randolph said.


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Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.