Health Official: Virus Numbers Will Rise On Testing Outbreaks



Coronavirus cases will continue to rise in Shelby County as health department officials continue to target hot spots, health officials said here Tuesday afternoon, but the counts aren’t the only metric they’ll consider to further re-open the economy.

New cases have been reported in the county every day for the last seven weeks. The counts have fluctuated, usually following fluctuations in testing. Tuesday’s total new case count was 72 as new tests fell to 719, lower than previous days and below the county goal of 1,000 tests per day.

The new cases brought the county’s total case number up to 2,992. Though, Shelby County Health Department director Alisa Haushalter said the number — the total case number — is not as important now as it was in the virus’ beginning here.

To gauge the actual spread of the virus’ spread in the county, health officials look to how many patients tested positive for coronavirus against how many tests were administered. On Monday, for example, 72 tested positive out of 719 tests. That means about 10 percent tested were positive for the virus.

It wasn’t great news as “we try to keep it way below 10 percent,” Haushalter said Tuesday. However, the county has averaged a positivity rate between 8 percent and 8.5 percent for the duration of lockdown orders.

But Monday’s 10 percent positivity rate had an outlier in the data. Tests given at Compass Rehabilitation found 33 patients with the virus there and seven positive staff members for a total of 40. So, more than half of all of Monday’s new cases were from one location.

Monday's virus report shows clusters of the virus found in nursing homes across Memphis since the end of March. - SHELBY COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT
  • Shelby County Health Department
  • Monday's virus report shows clusters of the virus found in nursing homes across Memphis since the end of March.

“When we begin to target nursing homes, our numbers will go up,” Haushalter said. “It is critical at this point to put a laser focus on those outbreaks we have within our vulnerable populations. Targeted or surge testing will continue in facilities serving seniors, in communities with outbreaks in transmissions [like the 38118 ZIP Code], and jail facilities. This will be our focus for months to come and, yes, I anticipate this will contribute to our numbers going up.”

If the positivity rate begins to trend upward, health officials could recommend reversing some of the new loosening of restrictions. These began here Monday as the first day of the new Back to Business plan allowed some restaurants and stores to open on a limited basis.

If spikes in the positivity rates continued, Haushalter said she would recommend “tightening the faucet.” Though, she told one reporter during a new conference Tuesday that she could numerically predict the likelihood of tightening that faucet.

“Our goal is to not go backward, but to go forward,” she said. “Our mantra in these press conferences everyday is the same — social distancing, washing your hands, and cough etiquette.”

Haushalter said the health department also looks at the reproduction rate of the virus. That rate is, basically, how many people are affected from every one case of the virus here. The goal is to keep that number below one (one person giving it to fewer than one person, statistically speaking), she said. However, the figure has been above one for a few days. If that number reaches and stays at around 1.3 or 1.4, health officials may have to consider tightening the faucet.
screen_shot_2020-05-05_at_1.25.06_pm.png, the virus model established by the co-founders of Instagram, put Tennessee's reproduction rate at .95 Tuesday afternoon.

The health department also looks at its capacity to isolate new cases and quarantine them quickly, she said. Also, they have to make sure hospitals have enough space for COVID-19 patients and for patients with non-virus-related conditions like strokes or those who have been in auto accidents.

“If we see a negative trend in any way, we may have to pick up restrictions again,” Haushalter said. “But if we can pick it up and improve our social distancing, we don’t have to close things back down.”

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