Tue update #2: Shelby County COVID-19 task force press conference

Dr. Bruce Randolph, Shelby County Health Officer, led off the conference. He said there were some encouraging indicators, with average number of cases per day and rolling positivity rate down from a week ago. He attributed those results to improved masking and limited service restaurants being closed (although, that’s just conjecture; he offered no concrete data that closing limited service restaurants made a difference).

Hospitalization remains sufficient for both acute care beds and ICU beds for both COVID-19 patients and other patients.

Dr. Randolph said that while an executive order by Tennessee governor Bill Lee permits sports, including contact sports, in public schools, schools in Shelby County are not required to have them; it is a school-by-school decision. Randolph said that it is not the Health Department’s place to approve or reject individual schools’ plans to implement sports, but they will advise on plans if requested.

University of Memphis president Dr. M. David Rudd came up to speak. Last week the university announced a phased plan, with most instruction virtual to begin the fall semester. A major factor in this decision was the trouble conducting large number of COVID-19 tests and getting the results back in a timely manner – he said 7-11 days was the average.

Rudd pointed out that students are still housed on the university campus, and have been for the last six months. In addition, some small classes have been allowed to meet. A big reason for the continued activity on campus is that some students come from a background where access to computers, software, Wi-Fi and nutritious meals would not be possible otherwise.

Rudd said they expect instruction to be mostly virtual for 30 days, but they will monitor the situation and update on a weekly basis. They need to see 2-3 weeks of data pointing in the right direction before moving to the next phase of back-to-campus. They expect it to be a hybrid model.

Dr. Randolph was asked for an update on the “tripwires” document. He said it is still being prepared. He hoped to have it ready for the release, but could not promise it. When pushed further, he said the task force does not want it to be a black-and-white document that says, for example, if the positivity rate goes above X, then Y will happen. He says the document is intended to be fluid. (Like the Back to Business plan was?)

Dr. Randolph was asked if data on cases and tracing will be kept in schools, and he said yes, similar for how it would be tracked for any other venue. A decision has not yet been reached on whether to release that data to the public.

Another question: What about football games? What will be the plan to ensure social distancing and masking guidelines are adhered to? Dr. Randolph replied that because of the governor’s executive order, the Health Department does not have a lot of control over games and practices. However, the Department does have say over the venues and arenas, and will expect measures put forth in the health directives to be observed. Also the department will be involved in quarantining and isolating of athletes.

Brad Broders of Local 24 pointed out that Corinth, MS schools opened last week, and there are already 5 confirmed COVID cases there. Can Shelby County expect something similar? Randolph noted that the coronavirus is here and we cannot get around it. We can implement standards, as has been done in the health directives, to reduce the risk of catching it, but we cannot reduce that risk to zero.

Broders followed up, asking what it’s important for parents to look for in returns to live instruction. Randolph replied to look for the safety measures spelled out in the health directive, including masking, six feet of distance, hand washing, sanitizing, cleaning, avoidance of crowding. He also said to look for how the safety protocols keep teachers safe.

Randolph said the backlog has gotten more manageable, down to an average of about 3 days for return of results, rather than the 7-11 days not long ago that Rudd talked about. 3 days allows for much more effective contact tracing. If results times continue to decrease, they will start allowing for the testing of asymptomatic people who have not been exposed to the virus.

U of M president Rudd was asked about keeping Tigers football players safe. He said protocols for voluntary and individual workouts were issued a few weeks ago and those are going well. Rudd said American Athletic Conference presidents meet tomorrow and we should see a fall football schedule not long after that.

That’s it for the recap. Back tomorrow with more news.