Tennessee doctors warn of ridding mask ordnances too early

Updated: Apr. 28, 2021 at 4:51 PM CDT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Doctors are saying “not yet” to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s request for communities to end their mask mandates by Memorial Day.

The Shelby County Health Department said at the current rate of cases, there could be 6,000 new active COVID-19 cases in 30 days.

Nationally, COVID-19 cases have gone down about 20 percent, but still about 50,000 cases are being reported a day. Over the last month, we’ve seen case numbers go up in Shelby County, but we’ve still avoided fourth-wave level numbers. But still, doctors said taking off the masks could get us to that. Some are cautioning the county of getting rid of a mask mandate too soon.

“This is the intersection of politics and medicine,” said Dr. Steve Threlkeld, infectious disease expert at Baptist Memorial Hospital.

That’s a place Threlkeld doesn’t really like to be. Following Lee’s request, county mask mandates and business restrictions are lifted by Memorial Day, Tennessee’s doctors are giving their take on the suggestion based on the numbers of the pandemic.

“If we take away the masks and the mask mandate, I’m very concerned we’re going to skyrocket in our numbers,” said Dr. Nick Hysmith, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare’s medical director of infection prevention.

“I think we’re premature in getting rid of the mask mandate,” said Memphis city councilman and family physician, Dr. Jeff Warren.

“The best way to know if that’s advisable by Memorial Day is to look at numbers just before Memorial Day,” Threlkeld said.

In Shelby County, the daily case total over the last seven days is about 144 cases, which is a few less than what we’ve seen in previous weeks. Doctors said numbers appear to be plateauing.

However, with a reproduction rate at 1.12, the projection is cases will grow and there could be more than 6,000 active cases in 30 days. Plus, with vaccine demand decreasing by about 80 percent across the state, doctors said masks are what work right now.

“In my mind it doesn’t make any sense scientifically to throw the mask away if you haven’t gotten your population to herd immunity,” Warren said.

“The answer to the question do we need mask mandates is get your vaccine,” Threlkeld said. “The answer to your question of how long we need mask mandates is get your vaccination.”

In its report to the Shelby County Commission this week, the county health department said there is concern that hospitalizations will grow in the next four to six weeks as a majority of cases are the highly transmissible UK strain of COVID-19. As for current COVID-19 patients, doctors are reporting younger patients due to the higher rate of vaccination in senior citizens and the elderly.

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