UTHSC gives public access to daily COVID statistics

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 20, 2020 1:40 PM CT | Published: May 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Starting this week, information the University of Tennessee Health Science Center collects about COVID-19 infection rates across the nine-county metropolitan area will be available to the public. 

“The figures and maps show how widespread the virus is in the Memphis Metropolitan Area, whether new infections have changed since reopening, how many COVID-19 patients are in hospitals, and where testing is done and with what results,” said a UTHSC announcement.

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“Two interactive maps show how the infection has spread over time. Most of the information will be updated daily.”

Three times a week, the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force pores over data about the coronavirus in the region. That information comes from a variety of sources, including city and county government offices. One of the most robust sets is compiled by UTHSC biostatisticians from local Health Department data and subsets pulled from Johns Hopkins University and The New York Times.

Tuesday, May 19, UTHSC made the information public, with graphs that include infection rates in bordering counties in Mississippi and Arkansas.

Biostatisticians drilled down to show the numbers tested in each ZIP code since the beginning of the pandemic and the proportion of positive tests, in color-coded graphs that allow people to see at a glance how the pandemic is progressing.

A graph populated with New York Times interactive data allows people to see how the coronavirus infection spread occurs locally and nationally, day by day. Sections show the number of cases in each of the nine counties in the Memphis region, including the number per 100,000 residents and deaths.

 Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

“We have been sharing this with the Health Department on a daily basis for quite a while,” said Fridtjof Thomas, biostatistician and associate professor in preventive medicine at UTHSC.

“The public can see, going forward, what these (public policy) decisions are based on,” he said.

One graph, based on presumptive behavior of citizens, shows a 30-day trajectory of infection following the May 4 restart of the economy. It also shows the assumed rate of infection after the shutdown on March 24.

“Honestly, as a data nerd, I am very impressed with the level of concern the elected officials have with the data,” said Audrey P. Willis, manager of innovation and performance analysis for Shelby County government and a member of the task force.

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“They are making hard-core decisions off data being presented to them by very smart data analysts and scientists. These are not decisions based on voter blocs. You can see what the trends are. It’s right there in the data.”

She collects information about infection rates in nursing homes in the region in hot spots that grow by the week. That public health information and other aspects she is curating can be seen here.

 Esra Ozdenerol, professor and director of the University of Memphis Spatial Analysis and Geographic Education Laboratory, and her team created this dashboard, with Spanish-language and mobile friendly versions.

Early in the pandemic, UTHSC charted the data for its hospital partners — Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Methodist University Hospital, Regional One Health and Memphis Veteran’s Medical Center.

<strong>Scott Strome</strong>

Scott Strome

“We did it so we could begin to look at case numbers and ventilator status to really help our hospitals and city to understand,” said Dr. Scott Strome, dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine.

Since early April, UTHSC has been sharing the images with the task force. Making them available to the public widens the circle.

“We need informed citizens who understand what is going on and how their behavior has changed and will change how the virus affects us,” said Karen Johnson, endowed professor in women’s health in the College of Medicine and chair of UTHSC’s Department of Preventive Medicine.

On the issue of the importance of face masks, she points to the graph that shows dates that key orders were issued about closing and reopening the economy and what happened in 10 to 14 days following each.

“You can see we haven’t seen a surge of new confirmed cases after the blue line,” she said, “That is the point where we were concerned we would see a surge in cases because of the reopening.

“I think it is largely in part due to the amount of mask-wearing we have got going on. It’s important to know masks are making a difference.”

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Spikes in neighboring counties, including Tipton County, are shown in line graphs, with dates and comparisons to counties with similar-sized populations.

People can hear the news reports and see the data that supports the story, UTHSC leaders said.

Tipton County, where a number of prisoners at the West Tennessee Detention Facility tested positive for the coronavirus, is an example.

“It was a special event. Tennessee has decided to test in the prisons, and Tipton County doubled the cases they had. That line explains it,” Thomas said.

The datasets that show the whole metropolitan area may have the broadest appeal because the snapshots cross state lines.

“It’s difficult to get something on your screen, which suggests what is going on, if that includes a state border,” Thomas said.

“That is what we tried to overcome and make available.”

By seeing the whole metro area and the higher number of cases in them, Johnson hopes people will see the likelihood of contracting the infection here is higher than in rural areas.

“There is much more infection in these urban areas. It is much more important to do the things that interrupt infection like wearing masks and being as socially distant as you can. And washing your hands.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


UTHSC Fridtjof Thomas Audrey P. Willis Dr. Scott Strome Karen Johnson Esra Ozdenerol
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 healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

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