Shelby County commissioner requests return to phase 1 after record-breaking spike in COVID-19 cases

Shelby County rate of hospitalizations rising, commissioner requests return to phase 1

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer has formally asked to return to phase one of the county’s reopening plan after a spike in COVID-19 cases.

In an email to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and the health department Monday, Sawyer writes, “It feels the transitions are prompted by the ‘back to business’ model and not the overall capacity of our county to be safe from COVID19.”

“The numbers we saw this weekend, from record new cases to hospitalizations, say to me that we have moved too fast,” writes Sawyer.

Daily cases, hospitalization, positivity rate Increasing in Shelby County

She cites a media report that many grocery stores and restaurants are not complying with the health department’s safety precautions. She asks that the county either return to phase one or modify phase two.

Speaking to WMC Action News 5 Monday, Sawyer said it’s not about shutting businesses down.

“It is about reducing the number of people who can be inside a business,” said Sawyer. “It is about adding teeth to the mask ordinance.”

Harris tweeted his response Monday afternoon, saying the county has twice delayed the move to phase three and it’s prepared to return to phase one if necessary.

“There is probably no county in Tennessee that has moved as slowly and as carefully as Memphis and Shelby County, and we are prepared to do even more,” writes Harris. “If necessary, we are prepared to even return to Phase 1. However, if everyone will continue to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19, we can avoid returning to Phase 1. We are all in this together.”

Last week, the health department first delayed the anticipated move to phase three after increases in cases and hospitalizations. Then over the weekend, Shelby County set a new record for its highest single-day case increase with 385.

“When you see those trends, those really concern you, there’s no question,” said Dr. Steve Threlkeld, infectious disease specialist at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis.

Threlkeld says the current trajectory is troubling.

With another 210 new cases reported Monday, there are now 8,094 total cases in Shelby County and 164 deaths, and the county reported its highest weekly testing positivity rate so far at 11.7 percent.

A chart from the health department shows the positivity rate steadily increasing over the last five weeks -- about the same time phase two began.

Health officials say they want to remain below 10-percent positivity.

“When the rate is 10 or above, we need to do more testing because you’re not finding all of the cases,” said Threlkeld.

COVID-19 testing positivity rate in Shelby County, June 22
COVID-19 testing positivity rate in Shelby County, June 22 (Source: SCHD)

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says Memphians need to do more to slow the spread of COVID-19, and now is a critical juncture.

“If we continue to increase at this pace, it won’t be long until our hospitals are overrun, so this is a turning point,” said Strickland. “We can really do something about it.”

Shelby County Health Department director Dr. Alisa Haushalter spoke to commissioners Monday afternoon, saying the county would remain in phase two until further notice. There is no recommendation at this time regarding phase three.

In phase two of the Shelby County’s back-to-business plan, restaurants, retail stores, civic buildings, churches and gyms can operate at 50 percent capacity with social distancing requirements. Under phase one, capacity drops to 25 for most businesses while others cannot operate.

Shelby County delays move to phase 3 of reopening plan

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