Shelby County just hit 100,000 COVID-19 cases. Experts warn the virus could linger if vaccinations don't improve
Shelby County marked 100,000 known COVID-19 cases Sunday morning, 100,037 to be exact. And those are just the confirmed cases.
The Shelby County Health Department's website now shows more than one in ten people in Shelby County were infected with COVID-19 during a pandemic that disrupted life for more than a year and killed at least 1,689 people.
But the new waypoint comes at a time when the pandemic — it can be still called that for a little while longer — has largely receded into a distant afterthought throughout the Mid-South.
On July 3, 2020, the Shelby County Health Department mandated masks countywide. Now, almost exactly a year later, few are wearing masks. Many businesses post signs requiring masks on the door, but don't enforce them. The pandemic, to most of Memphis, is over. It has been for some time. Large public vaccination sites are closed or shutting down, signaling a new scaled-back approach to the regional vaccination effort.
And Shelby County's vaccination rate remains stagnant. About 42% of people have received at least one dose, according to COVID Act Now. Sixty-six people received shots on Wednesday, the last day data for which was available. Three months earlier, on March 30, more than 12,000 people received a shot. Demand, not supply, fell off a cliff.
The continued spread and listless vaccination numbers worry Dr. Manoj Jain, a key member of the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 taskforce. He worries that the ever-circulating variants and the relatively low level of immunity in Shelby County and the surrounding areas could allow outbreaks of COVID-19 variants to disrupt life for months if not years.
Jain said large pockets of unvaccinated people are at risk of infection and the virus, which remains very contagious, could rip through social groups, churches and multi-generational homes.
Noting the low vaccination rates throughout Tennessee — many counties are below Shelby County's 42% — and across the South Jain said the continued presence of COVID-19 could be a Southern phenomenon. Jain, who recently visited his parents in Massachusetts, noted the greater than 65% vaccination rate in counties that include and surround Boston — all counties similar in size to the Memphis metro area.
The continued spread of the virus could be deadly for the immunocompromised even if they've been vaccinated, Jain said. He noted some vaccinated people who are immunocompromised don't have high-enough levels of antibodies to be considered immune to COVID-19 and they could at risk of severe illness or death.
"The vulnerable population still can get infection, and they're certainly more vulnerable in the south, because the virus is going to be continuously circulating compared to the Northeast, where the vaccination numbers are much better," Jain said.
In a recent antibody study, data showed that about a quarter of the population remains vulnerable to the virus — they have no immunity to it. The study, one of the monthly antibody studies of 300 random Shelby County blood samples, estimated that about 75% of the population had some immunity — 23% through infection and about 52% through vaccination.
The studies, given the small sample size, is largely an estimate, not an exact snapshot. Jain sees that high-level of vulnerability as something that could cause epidemiological problems for Memphis.
"We've got to go beyond the 70% of the people who are presently immune... Otherwise, this thing is going to continue to smolder," Jain said.
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.