MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The top health official in the only Tennessee county with an indoor mask requirement said Thursday she was cautiously optimistic that a recent coronavirus surge was slowing down, citing a drop in the number of cases and hospitalized children.
Dr. Michelle Taylor, director of the Shelby County Health Department, told reporters that officials are seeing “a plateauing of the numbers, if not a drop in the numbers” of COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, the health department reported a daily increase of 491 cases — down from a daily jump of 1,295 on Sept. 8.
The seven-day rolling average of daily reported cases was 621 on Thursday, a drop from 835 on Monday, the health department said. Meanwhile, the number of children in hospitals decreased from 14 last week to 11 on Thursday, though four children were on respirators, Taylor said.
The health department in Shelby County, which is the state’s most populous county and includes Memphis, issued a mask mandate for all public indoor spaces in August. The mandate includes K-12 schools, restaurants, bars, retail stores, gymnasiums and other buildings where people gather.
Shelby County is the only county in Tennessee with an indoor mask mandate enforced by a county health department. While the mask mandate isn’t the only reason for the county’s improvement, “we can give it a lot of credit,” Taylor said.
“I would shudder to think where we would be if we had not put that mask requirement in place for schools, or indoor spaces,” Taylor said during a weekly news briefing about the virus.
Masks are a key coronavirus-prevention tool that is most effective when worn by a large number of people, public health experts say. The CDC has again recommended them for schools, saying they don’t pose health risks for children older than toddler age. Vaccinations have not been authorized for children younger than 12.
Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest school district, has required all students to wear masks since classes started Aug. 9. The district had been in defiance of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s statewide order allowing parents to opt out of school mask requirements for nonmedical reasons, until a federal judge temporarily blocked Lee’s order in the county as part of a lawsuit against him.
Other school districts in the county had let parents send their children to schools without masks until the judge blocked Lee's order. The lawsuit was filed by parents of children with health problems who argue the opt-out order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Taylor also continued to encourage residents to get vaccinated, including children older than 12. Parts of the county seeing a drop in active cases also have a relatively higher vaccination rate, Taylor said.
Despite the Memphis area's slight improvement, the state of Tennessee remains in trouble.
As of Thursday, Tennessee continued to rank first in the country for new cases per capita. One in every 130 Tennesseans tested positive in the past week while more than 14,200 residents had died from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.
In Nashville, a handful of Republican lawmakers have persistently demanded that state leaders call a special legislative session and block certain COVID-19 safety measures from being implemented.
On Thursday, a small group of GOP lawmakers held a rally outside the state capitol building in Nashville to demand the special session, where supporters held signs that said “set our children free” and “no mandates.”
Calls for a special legislative session popped up as some schools implemented mask mandates and after President Joe Biden announced a sweeping plan to require COVID-19 vaccination or testing for many workers.
So far, Gov. Bill Lee has held off calling a special session. A spokesperson for Senate Speaker Randy McNally said the Republican believes Biden’s executive order is “unconstitutional” but added that McNally also feels that the General Assembly “cannot pass any state law that would make what President Biden has done any more unconstitutional.”
Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tennessee.