First coronavirus case confirmed in Memphis; region reacts

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 09, 2020 2:00 PM CT | Published: March 08, 2020 10:39 AM CT

Shelby County Health Department announced the first case of coronavirus in the area Sunday morning, March 8.

The patient is being cared for at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis on Walnut Grove. Officials did not give an age or gender, but noted the person is in a negative-pressure room and is in good condition, according to Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, an infectious disease physician at Baptist caring for the patient.

“No special extra medical care has been necessary,” he said.

A new case was also announced in Nashville Sunday, in Davidson County, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the state to three. The third case was in Williamson County, also in the Nashville area. 

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the department is working closely with officials in Davidson and Shelby counties to support investigations into the COVID-19 cases and has “full confidence in the ability of local jurisdictions to take swift action and mitigate risks.”

“The overall risk to the public remains low as COVID-19 is not currently widespread in Tennessee or the United States,” Piercey said in a statement.

With three cases reported, the Department of Health’s State Public Health Laboratory is authorized to run COVID-19 testing seven days a week to assist public health authorities and healthcare workers in identifying cases and treating individuals, according to the state.

The Tennessee Department of Health oversees 89 county health departments and partners with six major metropolitan jurisdictions including: Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Knox, Hamilton and Sullivan counties.

To protect the local patient’s privacy, Threlkeld could give no more details and asked others with knowledge of the case to abide by the same rules.

“In addition to the negative-pressure cautions I mentioned, we’re also following all of the CDC recommendations regarding protecting our employees, our patients and our visitors. Everyone caring for this patient is wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment. Hospital operations continue as usual,” he said.

In negative-pressure rooms, air does not circulate through the central heating and cooling system, preventing cross-contamination to other rooms.

The test was driven to Nashville Friday and the results were confirmed Saturday by the Tennessee Health Department. They have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for further confirmation, according to Shelby County Health Department director Alisa Haushalter.

“We do not anticipate any changes in the results,” she said.

The patient had traveled out of state but not out of the country.

“That’s very important because that means, from our opinion, there is no risk to the public at large. There is risk to individuals who have had close contact with the case but not the public at large. Our responsibility as a health department at this point is to do intensive contact identification and contact tracing,” she said. 

They will be placed in quarantine for 14 days from the last contact with the patient, she said.

“We will issue letters of quarantine to those persons, and then we will be checking on them every day to see if they develop signs and symptoms. If they do, we will help them coordinate getting tested and getting treatment,” she said.

In the meantime, the contacts are in isolation.

A contact is anyone who had 10 minutes of exposure to the person. In this case, the Health Department says there is no worry about passengers on a plane, bus or train having been exposed.

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“We want to make sure we’re being diligent and get a very thorough history and have an exhaustive list based on that history,” Haushalter said.

The immediate risk to the general public in Shelby County is thought to be low, and there is no expected risk to school-age children at this time, according to the Shelby County Health Department.

Health officials have shared practices important to stop the spread, including washing hands fastidiously with soap and water for 20 seconds, covering sneezes and coughs and making all attempts to avoid touching the face.

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“I’ve shared these strategies before, but it’s really important now that we hear this message, and we take it to heart,” Haushalter said. 

“Anyone who is sick with upper respiratory signs and symptoms – cough, fever – should remain at home and not be in public places. This means they should not go to work. Avoid church, avoid the opportunity of spreading that to other people.


“We are still in flu season, so it could be flu. It could be the common cold. And now, we’re getting an allergy season, but it could also be COVID-19, and we want to make sure we’re not missing opportunities for that to be spread.”

She said it is important to clean surfaces with FDA-approved disinfectants and that people planning international travel should check the CDC website for the list of countries with travel bans.

“I also remind people to stay current, particularly on the travel restrictions, so that people make good choices about their travel.”

A press conference was held at 10 a.m. with health officials and the city and county mayors.

“Our first responders, particularly police and fire, are well prepared for this situation, not only to take care of patients as needed, but to do their best to ensure the virus does not spread further,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. “The city stands ready to help the state and the county, those governments in any way we can.”

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Threlkeld said there have been rumors of cases in Memphis for days and could not confirm that this was one of them.

“I can only tell you I have had a number of notifications that many patients have had COVID-19 over the last few weeks ... There have been a number of false claims in various hospitals around the city.”

He also said masks have not proven to be effective protection against respiratory viruses, including coronavirus.

“It’s really key to use good hand hygiene,” he said.

The CDC recommends people 60 and over and those with underlying chronic health conditions stay home as much as possible and avoid crowds. 

Dr. Jon McCullers, infectious disease expert at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the head pediatrician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, says it’s very possible more cases will be reported here soon.

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“It would not be surprising if there is some coronavirus being mistaken for flu. We are not testing extensively yet for coronavirus.”

With limited test kits in the state, “we could have a lot of coronavirus out there,” he said.

Last week, the state health department had 85 testing kits. It is the agency currently in charge of all testing for coronavirus.

“It’s going to be weeks logistically before we are able to offer more widespread testing,” McCullers said. “One of the most common questions I am getting is: ‘Where can I get tested?’”

UTHSC has developed a test here through the work of Dr. Colleen Jonsson, but it has not been approved by the FDA.

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“There are a lot of regulatory steps before it can be used for patients,” McCullers said.

The first case in Tennessee was reported in Williamson County Thursday.

Although county Mayor Lee Harris noted the seriousness of the environment, “we don’t believe there is a need to panic. In fact, there are things all of us can do to mitigate the various public health concerns. So for example, in Shelby County government, we have already adjusted some of our policies to make it easier for our employees who are sick to stay home and take care of themselves.

“And we would encourage other large employers to review their policies to help employees who are sick have the ability to stay at home,” he said. 

Elle Perry contributed to this story.

This story will be updated.


coronavirus Shelby County
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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