At 30 now, virus spreading in workplaces, social settings

By Updated: March 20, 2020 9:43 PM CT | Published: March 20, 2020 7:01 PM CT

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Shelby County now has 30 cases of COVID-19, including numbers that doubled twice in the last few days.

But the details make the story more complex.

The real numbers didn’t double in 24 hours. The cases existed and people had been tested and were home quarantined or hospitalized. The issue is that the Health Department didn’t have the numbers because the tests were analyzed in private labs.

“What’s important to recognize is that about 15 of those tests were not reported and that we received those reports late yesterday,” said Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department.

“It’s a requirement by law in the state of Tennessee that health care providers, pharmacies and laboratories report positive lab results within a timely manner, and unfortunately with the changes in systems in the commercial labs coming on, there were some delays in reporting,” she said.

The delays are part of an increasingly complex milieu city and county leaders are trying to lead through now.

COVID-19 is being spread in the community in workplaces and among families and social groups, Haushalter said.

“What you would anticipate next is much more transmission in social settings; so more broadly — grocery stores, restaurants, bars and so on.”

In the county, 69 more people are being monitored by the health department. In the state, there are 228 cases.

Because one of the new confirmed cases is a food service employee in Shelby County Schools, the entire lunch program the district was planning to deliver, starting Monday, is now canceled.

“Our earnest intentions to bridge the gap for food insecurity during this crisis have been abruptly halted by the spread of the virus,” said SCS Superintendent Joris Ray.

“We are deeply saddened by this development. Nevertheless, Memphis and Shelby County, we cannot allow our children to go hungry,” he said, calling on food pantries, community distributors and donors to “lean in.”

People who can help are asked to email

And as of Friday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris was “seriously considering” the options he has as county mayor to reduce transmission in the county, Haushalter said, noting he was expected to make an announcement late Friday or early Saturday about additional restrictions that eventually likely will include neighboring counties in Mississippi and Arkansas.

“It’s about geography, so you have to get the larger area of geography because people will just leave and go somewhere else,” Haushalter said.

There are now 228 cases in the state. In Shelby County, another 69 are being monitored by the health department.

Across the city, the stories of angst and sheer determination to help are mounting up. A nurse at UT Family Practice on Primacy Parkway has sent her children to stay with her mother and is communicating with them through FaceTime in the evening.

Dr. Robert Burns, a gerontologist who helps care for 600 elderly in six nursing care centers here, has not seen one case.

“You can’t not be anxious,” he said. “The big issue in long-term care is that families are not allowed to visit, even families who are deeply involved in the care. It’s stressful for both parties. I think that is the hardest thing.”

For Beverly Robinson, 55, living in a two-bedroom apartment in Hickory Hill with six other people, including five children, the monotony and worry about running out of food is numbing.

“I can’t do nothing but watch TV. I don’t know what to call it. Lord, have mercy,” she said.

Her daughter, Kentara, 17, who has watched her prom and graduation likely go out the door, is “a little mad.”

“I can understand where they are coming from, but we will have to spend our summer at school,” Kentara said.

“I feel terrified for the older people. They are alone and probably don’t have anyone to help,” she said, mentioning specifically the crowds buying everything in sight in the grocery stores.

“I wonder if they remembered to buy food for the old people who are alone.”

Because the virus is now alive in the community, Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, infectious disease expert at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, is more emphatic in his comments to the public.

“We don’t need more information to convince people to follow those instructions that our health authorities have laid out,” Threlkeld said. “Now is the time to do them. We are pleading with people to do them. I don’t care how many swabs you order or how efficient you are at preparing for these things, if you don’t do those simple things to check the spread of the infection, it’s possible we could find ourselves in a national situation like Italy.”

For people who are still traveling, even by car, to places where self-monitoring is required, Haushalter says it’s critical that they don’t immediately return to work when the get back home.

“And then individuals who may be sick or the contacts of the individuals who have COVID-19 should remain out of the workplace for at least 14 days,” she said.

Families with college students home from affected areas need to be aware too, she said, noting that the new normal includes checking for fever, watching for changes in coughs, social distancing at home, and using separate dishes and bathrooms, if possible.

SCS still intends to deliver academic packets, starting Monday, to the 60 sites that were to be distribution points for school lunches. 

Ray did not say how that would be done. The packets are curriculum outlines for the week for families that do not have computers or Wi-Fi access. Other families will be able to download the packets from the district’s website.

Ray said the district was trying to see if it could get the  kitchen and food warehouse facility deep-cleaned in enough time to resume the food distribution.

“We’re working out and hammering out the details,” he said. “But what’s more important is that the community wrap their arms around our children.”


coronavirus Shelby County Health Department Alisa Haushalter

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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