COVID testing set to expand into more areas of city Friday

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: April 16, 2020 10:09 AM CT | Published: April 15, 2020 12:12 PM CT

Public testing for the COVID-19 virus moves beyond the Fairgrounds and seven Christ Community Health clinics Friday, April 17, in what is the start of a major expansion of testing countywide, including mobile testing and testing for those who are homeless.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland confirmed the start of the long-awaited acceleration in testing during a Wednesday, April 15, recording of the WKNO Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines” with new testing sites in Frayser and Hickory Hill as well as testing in Memphis Housing Authority facilities.

The ramp-up in testing is a critical milestone on the path to reopening parts of the local economy closed by the current countywide emergency orders closing nonessential businesses and limiting the movement of citizens.

Coronavirus live blog, April 15: County approves $2.5M for virus expenses

“We don’t have enough people using Tiger Lane or Christ Community (Health Centers),” Strickland said of the existing testing sites opened by the COVID-19 task force, the state and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.

“There are dozens of tests going without usage. But on top of that, we do need more tests,” he said. “No matter when we reopen businesses … what we have to do is contain the virus. To contain the virus, we need heavy testing – not only those who are symptomatic but those who are asymptomatic.”

A federal stimulus check to the city, anticipated in a matter of days, will also be key to buying the testing supplies including protective gear necessary for the increase in testing.

Through Tuesday, 15,082 people had been tested at local hospitals, clinics and other testing sites. Strickland has set a goal of getting to at least 1,000 tests a day in Shelby County. The current effort is up to about 750 a day.

On the program, hosted by Eric Barnes of The Daily Memphian, Strickland said he doesn’t have a date in mind for lifting or changing the city’s declaration of a civil emergency. The peak for the spread of the virus in the Memphis area is still projected to be in late May to mid-June by the models the city and other local leaders are using.

Strickland’s comments on testing expansion came on the same day that Gov. Bill Lee announced the state will provide free COVID-19 tests to people regardless of ability to pay or insurance coverage.

Tests will be offered to anyone who requests one, instead of only to those who exhibit the main symptoms of the virus such as a fever or bad cough.

Testing is available at every health department in the state’s 95 counties, and 15 extra sites will be set up in counties across the state over the next two weekends. Shelby County is not included in the list of extra test sites for this weekend.

“If you think you need a test, we will test you,” Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said.

The governor explained more test kits are available than two to three weeks ago when people were allowed to be tested only if they went to a physician and showed the primary COVID-19 symptoms.

Lee also said at his afternoon briefing that he spoke Wednesday with Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, to see how the state can cover uninsured residents for COVID-19 treatment.

The state has requested approval of a waiver to its Medicaid program that would provide about $105 million for the uninsured population. Tennessee continues to wait for approval, but a TennCare spokeswoman recently said CMS is putting more emphasis on funding through the CARES Act.

Lee confirmed Wednesday any federal funding to cover the cost of COVID treatment for the uninsured is likely to be provided through the $2 trillion CARES Act.

“The particulars for that were not laid out in that phone call today, but I received assurance from CMS that we would be able to cover COVID-related expenses for the uninsured. We’re committed to that,” Lee said.

Rebooting the economy

In Memphis, Strickland also said Wednesday he has no idea yet what businesses should reopen when. And his decision will be done in coordination with leaders of the county’s six other cities and towns as well as Shelby County government and health officials to make sure the terms are consistent.

The goal is to keep the number of COVID cases requiring hospitalization from overwhelming local hospitals.

“To do that, I would like -- at least for a major reopening -- the positive cases going down. We’ve hit that peak and we are on the other side of the peak,” Strickland said. “Then we establish that box that I talked about, widespread testing and a lot of capacity to do contact tracing, isolation and quarantine so that when people do test positive we can get them out of society and in their homes or in the hospital so that it doesn’t spread.”

Currently, testing is still limited to those who have symptoms of the virus. In the past week, those conditions have changed to include minor symptoms that appear first. As testing expands, those who don’t have a personal physician will be able to get testing by simply saying they think they might have the virus.

Strickland said he doesn’t foresee any major changes to the lists of essential and nonessential businesses between now and the anticipated peak of the virus.

“I think there are some things that could be more constraining. Some things industry is already doing themselves,” he said. “The grocery stores are already limiting capacity to about 50% in the stores. That probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to put it in the order. … We want them all to do it.”

Strickland has been talking with local business leaders since before his declaration of a state of emergency in the city last month. While some federal stimulus money is beginning to arrive for them, Strickland said individual checks to citizens that were to start showing up in direct deposit bank accounts Wednesday should be followed by another check to weather the sustained economic impact of the virus.

“That’s not going to last very long,” he said of the checks to individuals.

“I think businesses are having trouble with the SBA (Small Business Administration) website,” Strickland added. “Bankers are really working overtime. I think the huge crunch of going on these websites has really delayed it somewhat. For the most part I think it’s working.”

The day after he and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and local leaders in Knoxville talked with the governor about the terms of a statewide reopening of the economy, Strickland said he believes such an order from the governor’s office will include different conditions for different counties.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt. Lake County and Shelby County, although we’re only a couple of hours away from each other, are probably worlds away with respect to this virus,” Strickland said. “So, I think the governor is taking that into account. When he reopens business, you may see it phased in differently throughout the state.”

President Donald Trump has talked of a federal order reopening the economy nationally – an idea that has drawn fire from some governors and Constitutional experts who say the 10th Amendment to the Constitution preserves powers not specifically given to the federal government for state governments in instances like declarations of emergency.

Strickland said he is not sure at this point what would happen if a federal or state lifting of the local decrees conflicted with what he and local leaders think is necessary.

“We are researching that. I don’t think we’re going to get there. But we are researching it,” he said. “I don’t think we are going to get there with the state. I think all of us want to be on the same page.”

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said Tuesday he thinks the state actions will align with what local leaders here believe is the right thing to do given local circumstances.

“I think they are open to receiving that feedback and designing a particular approach that applies to the conditions here in Memphis and Shelby County,” Harris said of the conversation with Lee. “He expressed his desire to really be in harness with municipal leaders here in Shelby County. I do think at some point we will talk seriously about what the next phase of this looks like.”


Mayor Jim Strickland COVID-19

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

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

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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