Shelby County officials warn of hospital staffing shortages
(Karen Pulfer Focht)
Shelby County health officials warned county commissioners Wednesday that hospital capacity hasn’t fully recovered from the effects of previous COVID-19 variants before Omicron caused infections to reach their highest point in the pandemic in the past week.
During a county committee meeting, Shelby County Health Director Michelle Taylor briefed commissioners on COVID trends since the pandemic began and said recent positive COVID cases have far surpassed previous reports.
Before the omicron surge, positive COVID cases at a 7-day average rate hit their highest point in the pandemic in December 2020 at 868. Although the delta variant caused similar infection rates, positive cases reached their highest point at 835 on Sept. 12, 2021.
As of Tuesday, the Shelby County Health Department reported 2,224, the highest 7-day rolling average since the pandemic began. Of those tested, 41.4% tested positive for COVID, said Taylor, noting that the rate is “clearly the highest positivity rate we’ve had over the course of the pandemic,” said Taylor.
“That just gives you a picture of the sheer scale of where we are with the omicron variant,” she added.
In the meantime, hospitals that struggled during the Delta surge continue to face staffing shortages.
Although those infected are reporting milder symptoms, unvaccinated residents may still require hospitalization. Because of the sheer amount of positive COVID cases, even a small percentage seeking hospitalization could break hospitals already facing a staffing shortage.
“Omicron is incredibly transmissible. It is as transmissible as the measles and the most infectious agent that we know,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, guest speaker and infectious disease consultant at Baptist Memorial Hospital and Methodist Hospitals in Memphis.
Being unvaccinated continues to be the highest risk factor in contracting the virus and requiring hospitalization, and fully vaccinated rates remain at 50.4%. Due to this, health officials worry that COVID cases will continue to rise.
“People are just not realizing that the risk of dying is incredibly high, of being hospitalized is incredibly high. They are not vaccinated. I wish I could take many of you and others through the ICU and see what I see everyday. It’s a tragedy to see otherwise healthy people, with three or four children who are young, die. It’s just painful,” said Jain.
Health officials are unable to properly predict how the virus may continue to mutate, but since omicron is incredibly transmissible, Jain said that another highly contagious variant was unlikely to happen.
With more holidays and special events happening in the next few weeks, today’s current surge could continue as Shelby County celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17, an important holiday among county residents, and the Super Bowl on Feb. 13.
While Taylor urged commissioners to encourage social distancing and masking, she also recommended the use of N95 masks instead of fabric coverings for better protection.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.