Tory Watson of Memphis Police Department gets his vaccine. (© Karen Pulfer Focht)
Shelby County has reached limited availability in ICUs across the county due to a surge of positive COVID-19 cases, prompting the Shelby County Commission to take measures designed to combat high levels of pediatric COVID cases.
On Wednesday, commissioners voted to increase the operating budget of Shelby County’s Health Services Division to combat nurse shortages, spend $1.5 million on purchasing face masks for Shelby County Public Schools, oppose Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order 84 regarding mask mandates and request that the Shelby County Health Department (SCHD) reinstate a county-wide mask mandate.
According to the Shelby County Health Department, there were 6,915 positive COVID cases as of August 13.
By Tuesday, there were an additional 448 new cases, said Dr. Michelle Taylor, SCHD director during discussions on reinstating a mask mandate in Shelby County. Shelby County has had a seven-day average of 638 cases and total deaths have increased to 1,785 while completed vaccination rates remain at 37.5%.
Children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine and now account for 24.9%, or 1,901, of all active COVID cases. Children of color account for most of the cases, while white children account for 20.3%.
Hospitals are experiencing staff shortages, a trend seen nationwide. Workers are leaving either due to burnout from the pandemic or to seek higher wages. Shelby County hospitals have offered competitive rates using CARES Act funds, but the federal government has yet to issue additional funds.
A spokesperson for the SCHD said they have been unable to match competitive wages for nurses in the private sector, which is paying up to $70,000.
“We are at a disadvantage at competing with them,” said Travis Green, SCHD interim deputy director.
Commissioners passed a resolution to increase the department’s operating budget by $82,304.
Positive COVID cases peaked in January at 7,970, before the vaccine became widely available for most adults, and health officials warned that hospitals are already experiencing similar critical levels.
“Waits in the emergency rooms are off the charts, with 36 to 48 hours in some [emergency rooms] just to be seen. That’s not just for COVID-19, that’s for anything that you have going on that requires medical attention,” said Taylor.
“Shelby County Health Department has been informed that we will be receiving a signed letter from all of the directors in emergency departments across the county saying that they are at a critical point and that if we do not do something, we will see a possible collapse of our health system in Shelby County,” she added.
Taylor urged commissioners to pass a universal mask mandate at least for 30 days, to slow down the transmission rate, warning that if any additional catastrophic event happened, hospitals would be unable to respond.
“[Memphis Fire Chief Gina Sweat] said last week that if any of our residents calls the ambulance, there’s no guarantee that the ambulance can respond,” she said.
Commissioner passed the resolution recommending that the health department reinstate a county-wide mask mandate.
Commissioners also voted to oppose Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates for their children in school. Shelby County mandated masks for all public schools ahead of Lee’s announcement on Aug 6.
Commissioners Brandon Morrison, Amber Mills and Mick Wright voted no.
A similar resolution was also passed at the Memphis City Council meeting on Tuesday.
Commissioner Tami Sawyer sponsored both resolutions to require mask mandates and to oppose Lee’s executive order. Sawyer also sponsored a resolution to use $1.5 million for purchasing 300,000 masks for two Shelby County Public School systems.
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