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Ending the mandate

The Shelby County mask mandate is back up for discussion and local journalists are questioning whether the Health Department might lift the rule.

The mandate was imposed on July 3, after Tennessee Governor Bill Lee gave that authority to the state’s six local health departments.

Shelby County Health Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph said lifting the mask mandate “is something we would consider,” but added that, “the mask is the simplest tool that we have that’s shown to be most effective, and we would need to have good reasons to get rid of it.”

According to Fox 13, “Dr. Randolph said this decision would be based on data.”

Well, let’s take a look.

Measuring compliance

A study by the University of Memphis School of Public Health measuring mask use and compliance before and after the mandate found that mask wearing jumped from 52 percent in June to 92 percent in July.

When Fox 13 did a follow-up story on September 9, a fresh survey had found 96 percent of people observed wore a mask the previous month.

The University repeated the study in September, October, November and December and found “sustained high levels of compliance (95-96%).”

Unfortunately, such high levels of compliance with the mandate did not prevent the new case rate from rising.

Between the Sept. 9 news report and the local peak in December, new cases rose 705 percent, from 109 to 883 (7-day averages).

Statewide mandate

The day following our local new cases peak, Gov. Lee gave a primetime address responding to heightened pressure to impose a statewide mask mandate.

In his speech on December 20, the governor limited public gatherings but declined to impose a statewide mandate.

Based on his refusal and the recent detection of new variants, health officials were predicting disaster in the new year.

Instead, from that date through this week, new cases in Tennessee fell from 9,024 to 1,049, dropping 88 percent.

The bottom line

In summary, the Shelby County mandate did not keep local cases from rising by a factor of eight, and the absence of a statewide mandate did not stop statewide cases from falling to a tenth of the previous level.

And despite highly-effective vaccines now being available to any adult in Shelby County, the health authorities are as committed as ever to your continued obedience with the most visual and symbolic aspect of their dictates.

There is no exit strategy.

Meanwhile, health officials continue to ignore their own mandates during news conferences.

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COVID-19 update

This will be my final regular update reporting COVID-19 numbers for Shelby County. You can find all of the data used to build these charts and graphs on the Shelby County Health Department COVID-19 data dashboard.

One year ago this month, Shelby County reported its first known case of COVID-19, as well as the first death attributed to the virus.

There have been 90,110 reported cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County, as well as 1,546 deaths. The Commercial Appeal reports today that the true infection rate may be three times the number of cases, meaning 270,000 people in Shelby County have been infected recently enough to have antibodies present.

The Health Department has released its 19th directive, effective today, relaxing rules and restrictions on restaurants.

I have called for all such rules, mandates and restrictions to be lifted, and for health officials to return to an advisory role, allowing individuals to take whatever informed precautions necessary to keep themselves and others safe. I’ve done this for a few reasons:

  • Lockdowns, mandates and restrictions have had little effect on the spread of the virus, as noted in recent articles in Newsweek, The Associated Press, The Las Vegas Review Journal and elsewhere. I made the case using state and local data in a previous post here.
  • With a full year behind us, we need to return to our system of representative government and stop allowing ourselves to be directed by unelected authorities. Theirs should be an advisory role. We cannot allow emergency rule and restricted liberties to continue indefinitely.
  • County health officials have not demonstrated an ability to professionally manage the one job we needed them to perform well. If they could not do that, they certainly cannot run your business.
  • If the virus does not behave differently from week to week, it makes no sense to keep tweaking the guidelines.
  • The idea that citizens should be expected to read, understand and comply with 20-page directives issued every few weeks is not practical, and it’s a terrible burden on small business.

The time is now.

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Mandates don’t work

It’s time to end the mandates, restrictions and lockdowns.

The evidence shows these top-down actions by government have no measurable impact.

No matter how often authorities point to cherry-picked studies suggesting otherwise, such reports do not hold up to unbiased scrutiny.

This conclusion is universal, but let’s take a look at our local example.

Shelby County

In December, the Director of the Shelby County Health Department had this to say prior to releasing a new set of restrictive orders:

In this brief quote, Director Haushalter made the following points:

  • Shelby County’s numbers were among the best in the state
  • Tennessee was “on fire” and new policies were needed
  • Without new restrictions, there would be a very difficult January
  • Local actions can substitute for broader actions

I agree with the last point.

All American citizens, especially those who are concerned about state governments removing or refusing to impose restrictions, can continue to do as we’ve always done: follow the best guidance available and take precautionary measures to protect ourselves and others. This does not require mandates.

The other three points are suspect.

Shelby County among the best?

Shelby County’s numbers have not been drastically different than any of the largest counties across the state.

The chart above shows cases per 100,000 in the state of Tennessee’s ten most populous counties.

As you can see, these counties almost uniformly rise and fall together.

Cases rose through the beginning of August, then slumped through September, rose for a month and dipped, rose for another month and dipped, once again rose for a month and dipped, and have fallen since around the first of the year.

If policies had any measurable impact, we wouldn’t see this same pattern repeated across the state, as these local governments were not uniform in their response to the pandemic.

We can also compare Shelby County to its surrounding communities.

Above is a map of cases per 100,000 in Shelby County and the surrounding counties of Tipton, Fayette, Crittenden, DeSoto and Marshall.

Here also, cases rose through August, fell through September, mainly rose through the end of the year, and have fallen sharply since early January.

These communities had different policies, implemented at different times, but ended up with the same pattern.

Tennessee on fire?

It’s true the state had the highest ratio of new cases in the nation for a spell in December. Tennessee’s moment as the top state for cases was brief, and there’s nothing to indicate that fact had anything to do with state policy.

Above is a chart of cases per 100,000 in the southern states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee.

Once again, you can see the numbers in the entire region largely rose and fell together. Each of these states mounted a hill in July, traversed a valley for a few months, climbed a mountain at the end of the year, and then slid sharply in 2021.

Governor Bill Lee was under intense pressure in December to institute statewide restrictions. He declined to do that, and… cases fell.

The experts predicted the opposite.

A very difficult January?

With numbers increasing at the end of the year and with holidays and new variants on the horizon, health officials were convinced that the state’s failure to implement new restrictions would result in an explosion of new cases.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, Tennessee cases fell and locked-down California took a turn leading the nation in new cases. Though cases were falling nationwide, some of the states with the most severe restrictions joined the leaderboard, including New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

No better off

Shelby County’s numbers paralleled the larger state trend despite conflicting policy choices.

Shelby County did a little worse at first, then a little better, and now we’re about even with the state.

There’s no evidence that local mandates, 25% capacity restrictions and early curfews had any impact outside of economic fallout.

But the county focused on these measures at the expense of giving more time and attention to the vaccine distribution, which is the one thing the health department could have done to make a real impact on case rates.

It would have been harder for the state to justify a limited government approach if other interventions had shown real promise. Unfortunately for those who have been hardest hit, that has simply not been the case.

It’s time to end the mandates, restrictions and lockdowns.

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COVID-19 update

Vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccination process continues and the county will be moving into Phase 1b, including teachers and residents 65 and older. Information about eligibility categories and scheduling is available at the Tennessee Department of Health and the Shelby County Health Department.

In Shelby County, more than 100,000 doses have been administered. While a variety of process problems continue, the Health Department has made a few changes since our last update.

First, it launched the VaxQueue waitlist to allow citizens to register in advance and receive alerts when appointments are available.

Second, it is turning over management of the Pipkin building site to the City of Memphis, which has maintained a more efficient experience at the Appling location by requiring proof of an appointment and limiting how early people can arrive. As recently as last week, seniors arriving for appointments at the Pipkin site were waiting five hours or more and still being turned away.

A number of other frustrations also remain, including the absence of a unified scheduling system, too few second dose appointments available, and an unreliable supply of vaccine that cannot meet demand.

In addition, a severe winter storm may have contributed to the waste of 1,300 doses.

Commissioners will vote Monday on a resolution asking the state to intervene and call in the National Guard, as other states have done.

Variants. Health officials have identified a presumptive local case of the Brazilian variant, against which existing vaccines are less effective.

Back to business. Restaurants welcomed the Health Department’s latest directive, number 18, which relaxes restrictions and goes into effect at midnight. They did not as much appreciate the Health Department’s orders on Friday, initially closing all restaurants under the water boil order in Memphis, before being reversed later in the day.

Below we check in on the numbers. All local data used comes from the Shelby County Health Department.

Categories
Issues

COVID-19 update

Vaccines. The COVID vaccination process has begun. Information about eligibility categories and scheduling is available at the Tennessee Department of Health and the Shelby County Health Department.

In Shelby County, 24,000 people have been vaccinated, but few are very happy about the pace so far. All appointments for January have been filled and some await second doses. Older constituents and their family members are frustrated that no waitlist has been prepared, and it has been difficult to follow the process.

Variants. Multiple COVID-19 variants are circulating around the globe and are said to be more contagious. Officials worry the UK variant could fuel case spikes.

New strains originating in the U.S. were discovered by researchers a week after White House officials warned of them and such warnings were dismissed by the CDC and the New York Times as “false reports.”

Strategy. An international study of lockdown measures and business closures reveals no clear benefit over other voluntary measures. But where lockdowns and mask mandates have failed, rapid at-home testing could make a difference.

Below we check in on the local numbers, state rankings, and take a final look at U.S. fatalities in 2020. All local data used comes from the Shelby County Health Department.