For the first time since the pandemic began, the number of new COVID-19 cases in DeSoto County is trending downward.
From March to August, COVID-19 spread with increasing speed through the county. Now, though the number of total cases is still growing each day and the number of COVID-19-related deaths is at an all-time high, transmission of the virus is slowing, according to several models used to map the trends of the virus in the county.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to stop following guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to health care experts. The decline in the virus happened because of mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, avoiding large gatherings and hand hygiene, but new cases could spike again if these practices don’t continue, they said.
Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease physician who practices at Baptist DeSoto Hospital and is an infectious disease advisor to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, said that DeSoto County’s spread of coronavirus has declined and leveled out. Though he said that he thinks the county is at an inflection point in the virus’s spread, he acknowledged that there are still risks of returning to a critical level of transmission.
“If the general public follows the simple masking, distancing and testing protocols and strategies, then we will be able to maintain where we are and slowly, gradually improving,” he said. “However, if the population decides they’ve ‘had enough’ of this and ignore masking, distancing and testing, we will invariably see a hike in cases and hospitalizations.”
Dr. Shailesh Patel, Chief Medical Officer of Methodist-Olive Branch, agreed that decreasing the spread of COVID-19 is dependent on how diligent the public is in following guidelines like wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.
“That’s the hope and the thought and prayer here: that the worst is behind us,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be so quick to say that he thinks the worst is definitely behind the county.
Dr. Patel and Dr. Jain agreed that mandates to wear masks and keep gatherings small have been successful in lessening transmission of the virus.
“We really haven’t done anything different over the last three to four months other than putting a mask mandate in place,” Dr. Patel said. “I think keeping the mask mandates is a great idea.”
The mandates have been part of the larger changing of culture surrounding masks, distancing and hand hygiene, Dr. Jain noted. Without this change of culture, the greater Memphis area would have “seen a consistent, astronomical rise” is COVID-19 cases — no different than New York City’s outbreak crisis, he said.
Though the per capita rate of infection is higher in DeSoto County than it is in Shelby County, the culture has been changed across the area, Dr. Jain said.
Now, the public outlook on vaccines and testing needs to change to make further progress, he said. Moving to more extensive testing, including asymptomatic testing, would greatly reduce transmission, he said, especially in schools.
“There is plenty of capacity (for COVID-19 testing) in the area and plenty of surveillance techniques that can reduce the cost of testing per day,” he said.
Dr. Patel and Dr. Jain agreed that reopening parts of society — including schools — is needed, but precautions to prevent the spread of the virus was vital to successfully return to classrooms.
“Of course (schools reopening) is a threat,” Dr. Patel said. “It’s important for our kids — my kids included.”
Both doctors agreed that there are further actions the public can take to further reduce the impact of the virus, even as the number of COVID-19 patients in area hospitals is declining.
Dr. Jain and Dr. Patel emphasized the importance of continuing to stop the spread of coronavirus wherever possible. With flu season approaching, vulnerable populations will have an increased risk of transmission.
COVID-19 will likely continue to exist for years to come, both doctors said. Though it is unknown whether another wave of infections will move through the county or the worst of the virus is over, it could come and go for years or even decades to come.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to completely go away,” Dr. Patel said. “We could definitely keep it in check.”
How well the community can control the virus, the two doctors agreed, is dependent on its actions going forward.
“When you ask ‘is the worst behind us,’ it is really dependent on the public and how citizens respond,” Dr. Jain said.