COVID-19 math differs on testing numbers, emphasizes new use of civil emergency decree

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 25, 2020 6:26 AM CT | Published: March 24, 2020 4:31 PM CT

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s “Safer at Home” executive order, limiting movement in an effort to slow coronavirus spread, goes into effect at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, in a move toward social distancing that City Council member and physician Jeff Warren says is “all math.” 

“If we do it really hard right now … we have a chance of maybe just stopping it altogether, where in four weeks we don’t have this pandemic take over all of our hospitals,” Warren said Monday, March 23.

Haushalter likely to issue public health crisis order

He spoke at City Hall Monday as Strickland announced the city’s state of civil emergency, which ratcheted up earlier measures to include ordering citizens to limit themselves to going to work and staying at home except for necessary stops for food and medical needs. The order also closed businesses considered nonessential to promote “social distancing” — people staying six feet away from each other and not gathering in groups of 10 or more.

The new order takes effect at 6 p.m. countywide, with other municipalities and unincorporated Shelby County enacting the same standards. The Memphis order covers a two-week period but could be renewed at the end of the two weeks. The suburban orders are for one week, also with renewal options.

As the new order takes effect, there are 135 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Shelby County.

Shelby County COVID-19 cases at 135 Tuesday afternoon

The number of confirmed cases is the part of the pandemic math on which everyone agrees. But there is a divergence beyond that in the numbers the public may be applying and the math public health professionals are using in their approach.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter says the critical number for health professionals determining whether the worst is over, or this is the first wave of several, isn’t found in testing for everyone who wants to be tested. She argues it is in testing those who are symptomatic.

<strong>Alisa Haushalter</strong>

Alisa Haushalter

“We have not had difficulty getting people tested in Shelby County from the beginning,” she said. “The real question is access to testing, not mass testing. … What we look to is whether or not people who have signs or symptoms were able to get tested and whether they test positive or not.”

Haushalter says social distancing does have an impact on the spread of COVID-19.

“Social connections are a significant part of the transmission,” she said, adding the verdict on the “Safer at Home” may come in two to four weeks and with the arrival of warmer weather that stays and doesn’t give way to cold snaps.

“We anticipate that it may as many as four incubation periods, which is two months,” Haushalter said. “We don’t know in the United States … where the summer-spring seasonality is going to impact it.”

Meanwhile, Strickland has repeatedly referred to the South Korea model of testing a larger number of people, including those are not symptomatic, as the path the city should be on in its combined response of testing along with social distancing.


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By the letter of the six-page civil emergency order, the “Safer at Home” directive is a porous directive that allows for hardware stores and oil change businesses among others to remain open as essential businesses, and city parks can remain open.

The order has 28 clauses under the heading of “essential businesses” that remain open. That includes the final clause: “Any other business or service that the mayor determines is essential for the safety and public health of the city.”

There are nine clauses under the heading of “essential travel.”

Here is the order in its entirety.

The wording of the directive also comes with the caveat that “Safer at Home” is not necessarily the last step Strickland could take in what has been a series of three supplements so far to his initial March 17 declaration of a state of emergency in the city.

Most notably, it doesn’t include a curfew – at least at this point.

Strickland issues Stay-at-Home order effective Tuesday evening

“This is an unprecedented situation,” said city chief legal officer Jennifer Sink, who worked for two weeks on the original March 17 declaration and the three supplements that have followed.

“We looked at it in the context of our local laws and our state laws and the various powers and authority that a mayor has to respond to civil emergencies and health emergencies,” Sink said. “We are operating within the boundaries of his authority. But we are also mindful of many different considerations – the need to balance the health needs with the economic consequences of that.”

Some businesses on the list of essential businesses closed earlier in the pandemic. Others that kept operating in limited capacities and are considered essential by the decree shut down because financially it was the better choice for their survival.

Strickland, like other city and state leaders across the country who have taken such measures, has been clear that he is not attempting to balance the need for social distancing with efforts to keep a booming local economy afloat to some degree.

“It certainly is a bump in our momentum,” Strickland said Monday. “Every city in experiencing that. It’s not just Memphis. That is a concern. It is not the primary concern. Health is the primary concern.”

False test results another challenge of new virus

The most visible sign of the city’s recent prosperity — construction sites — remain active and are considered essential business operations in line with social distancing measures in other cities.

“I think most, if not all, have deemed construction as essential,” Strickland said, citing the distance most construction workers have from each other even in normal working circumstances.

Very little about the state of emergency resembles past states of emergency in the city because the most recent previous uses of the declaration have been for instances of civil unrest. In those cases – the 1978 police and fire strikes, the arson and rioting that followed the police beating death of Elton Hayes in 1971 and the civil unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 — there were curfews with police or National Guard enforcement that applied to businesses closing as well as the movement of citizens. Liquor sales were banned as was the sale of gasoline in containers.

The push is specifically around limiting contact among individuals for a specific period of time as the number of confirmed cases rises suddenly.

In this case, the emergency measures are intended to stop the spread of a new virus and not the movement of citizens. Policing around the past states of emergency in the mid-20th century in Memphis focused on jailing those in violation of the curfew in some but not all instances. During the police and fire strikes, that included the controversial arrest of several dozen police officers who were on picket lines after the curfew began.

The last thing health professionals want to see in the current situation is people arrested for being too close to each other and then put in a jail pod with even more people who may already be less than six feet apart from each other.

<strong>Jeff Warren</strong>

Jeff Warren

“It takes a lot of personal responsibility,” Strickland said. “And we have to take people at their word.”

Dr. Jimmie Manzell, president of the Memphis Medical Society and chief of medicine at Methodist University Hospital, says he and other health professional understand the order is a burden for citizens and businesses.

“We also understand that if we don’t take this seriously, what may be coming down the road,” he said. “The only way right now proven to try to control or get ahead of this is through social distancing. We understand that is a dramatic change in the way we have functioned in this country. But if we don’t take these efforts, we are not going to get ahead of it.”

The approach is a mix of work and home, with social distancing practiced at both without the temptation of large crowds elsewhere that are the antithesis of the recommendations. The hope is that the rising numbers of confirmed cases do the job of enforcing measures that aren’t yet as stringent as they could be and are in other places across the country.

“The point is to get the message out,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said Monday in announcing a “united front” behind the “safer at home” strategy.

“We have found the only way to get the message out around social distancing … is to be extremely aggressive,” he said. “Hopefully, people on their own will comply.”

Also included are connected efforts by the Strickland administration to find immediate shelter for the homeless and bolster nonessential businesses as well as an economic relief fund the city is organizing.

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coronavirus Jim Strickland Alisa Haushalter Dr. Jeff Warren Lee Harris

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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