Shelby County leaders working to increase testing capacity, hire more contact tracers

Shelby County leaders working to increase testing capacity, hire more contact tracers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Public health officials said Thursday that Shelby County is averaging about 300 new cases of COVID-19 daily. The increased transmission means longer waits at testing sites and longer waits for the results.

Officials said the added cases are starting to stretch the system in many areas.

“We have red flags. We really are straining the public health system. We are beginning to strain the hospital system. We know our testing system is strained as well. And our numbers are going up,” said Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department Director.

Haushalter said social interactions are responsible for the latest spread of the virus in the county, and that’s why the health department earlier this week made the decision to reduce hours at all restaurants and close bars, as well as restaurants that receive more than half of their revenue from alcohol sales.

“What we know nationwide is we have an increase in cases among people 25 to 45, and that transmission is occurring in social settings where people are actively engaged in social activities like talking, and in place where they can’t wear masks,” she said.

Given the volume of cases, the health department is finding it harder to close contact tracing investigations. The department is also still hiring for dozens of open contact tracing positions.

Shelby Co. working to add testing capacity

The City of Memphis has loaned employees to the health department to help with contact tracing, as well.

“With the number of cases that we are having daily and the delays in reporting, the ability to get people isolated early is somewhat of a challenge,” said Haushalter.

The Memphis City Council allocated $2.5 million in CARES Act money to the Shelby County Health Department for contact tracing, with a potential investment of up to $8 million.

This week the council voted to create a committee to keep tabs on the effort, as a matter of “accountability,” according to Memphis City Council Chair Patrice Robinson.

Dr. Jeff Warren, a Memphis City Council member and member of the city-county COVID-19 task force, will chair the committee.

Warren told WMC Action News 5 that Director Haushalter is part of the committee.

“We want to make sure that the money we are giving there is being used in a way that is most efficient. If there are things the health department needs that they don’t have, we can help them with that to make things more efficient,” said Warren.

Warren said the council also wants to ensure investment in testing and contact tracing in African-American and Latinx communities, which have been disproportionately impacted.

In the meantime, as the health department deals with increased volumes, Dr. Warren said we all have a role to play in keeping tabs on the people we’ve interacted with, as our own contact tracers if we test positive.

“If we’re expecting the health department to be able to catch up with this surge to slow it down, it won’t work,” he said.

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