Shelby County reaches peak of COVID-19 cases

By , Daily Memphian Published: December 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The COVID-19 pandemic in Shelby County has reached its worst point yet.

The new coronavirus case average has never been higher, according to Shelby County Health Department data.

That’s led to active cases surpassing previous highs in the summer surge. Hospital capacity is tighter than ever as pandemic-related admissions reached new highs three times last week.

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The virus’s death toll in December countywide is the highest yet with 11 days left this month. Shelby County’s rising COVID-19 transmission is now classified as “severe” outbreak, according to COVID Act Now.

It’s all linked together in what’s been an ongoing surge, not only in Shelby County but nationwide, and may not end anytime soon. The recent countywide increase started in November. Thanksgiving gatherings amplified it and Christmas/New Year’s may take it to another unforeseen level based on the current trajectory.

A leaked draft of Health Directive 16 indicates a return to Safer At Home is possible. Though, the Health Department issued a statement Saturday, Dec. 19 afternoon that all options were under consideration.

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“Locally, we have continued to work together to explore all options that can reduce transmission while balancing economic impact,” the statement said. “As the document is finalized, it will be released to the media via the formal, traditional channels.”

From Dec. 5 to Dec. 19, the Health Department reported an average of 691 new cases and 6,093 test results each day with a 11.3% positivity rate. Testing numbers are up, but case growth far exceeded that. Five of the six highest daily increases occurred in this period with the county surpassing 1,000 new cases for the first time with 1,163 on Thursday.

“We do know we have exponential growth,” said Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department director, at a Thursday press briefing. “That growth is occurring because people are continuing to socialize together in their homes, in public places in more places and so on. Anything that we do is going to have to decrease the ability of people to come together and socialize.”

Coronavirus: Shelby County reports more than 750 cases, 21 deaths

Even with the first COVID-19 vaccinations administered in Memphis to health care workers in recent days, it’s still not expected to slow down the virus’s spread for several months.

In the previous two-week period from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5, the Health Department reported an average of 415 new cases and 3,980 test results a day yielding a 10.4% positivity rate. While those are relatively high numbers in isolation, it pales in comparison to what Shelby County has seen recently.

The Health Department has reported 132 coronavirus-related deaths reported since Dec. 1. That represents 16.4% of all pandemic deaths in Shelby County. 

The high point also came in the past two weeks with 23 new deaths reported Friday and an additional 21 on Saturday.

Hospital capacity has reached its tightest point with only 4% of intensive care unit and 7% of acute care staffed beds unoccupied in Memphis-area hospitals. There are 557 coronavirus hospitalizations in Shelby County, as of 5 p.m. Thursday, according to Tennessee’s Healthcare Resource Tracking System. The highest at any point in the pandemic.

The Memphis City Council is considering a resolution Monday Dec. 21 urging the Health Department to implement a Safer At Home order. Suburban mayors in a meeting with the Health Department Saturday morning once again pushed back against any new restrictions.

“In other words, everyone take a deep breath,” Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman wrote in a Facebook post. “We’ve been in ongoing conversations, and nothing is officially out yet. We’re hopeful for some tweaks and changes in language.”

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Health Directive 16 is expected to be issued in days. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris recently shared support of the proposed directive.

“I think we need everyone to come to that same kind of realization that as horrible as it is to have additional restrictions, we probably need them because lives are at stake and we are not likely to see action from the state and federal governments,” Harris said.

According to one of the tripwire guidelines, if Shelby County’s seven-day case average rises to 750 per day, the Health Department would consider closing schools and safer-at-home rules would resume. The tripwires are non-binding, but the seven-day case average is 844, well above the threshold to consider such a decision.

The Safer At Home order was originally enforced in March to slow coronavirus enough in part to allow local hospitals to be able treat all its patients. While surge beds are available if necessary, finding additional staff to run them continues to be a challenge countywide. Medical students and retired workers are being asked to help in the midst of this current wave.

Currently, the transmission rate is 1.18 compared to 1.11 earlier this month, according to COVID Act Now. Any number higher than one is an indicator of transmission, though Shelby County’s is currently classified as “severe” the highest level on its website.

Overall, the Health Department has reported 60,141 total coronavirus cases and 804 deaths, classifying 53,097 cases as inactive/recovered. Active cases in Shelby County stand at 6,240, an increase from the 3,451 reported Dec. 5. That’s an 81% increase in the past two weeks.

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Tennessee also has the highest average daily case rate per 100,000 people in the past seven days nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Shelby County Health Department coronavirus hospital capacity Lee Harris Health directives safer at home
Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf covers Bartlett and North Memphis neighborhoods for The Daily Memphian. He also analyzes COVID-19 data each week. Omer is a former Jackson Sun reporter and University of Memphis graduate.


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