Health Dept.: County in ‘early stages of community transmission’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 19, 2020 8:46 PM CT | Published: March 19, 2020 5:59 PM CT

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With 10 confirmed cases, Shelby County is now in the early stages of community transmission, a phase in the epidemic where the majority of new cases will not be related to travel.

“We believe we are seeing the very beginning of community transmission,” said Alisa Haushalter, head of Shelby County Health Department. 

“This is a pivotal moment in the epidemic,” she said, asking for diligence both in peoples’ personal and work lives to keep the spread at bay.

She asked employers to do all they can to let people work from home and that regular citizens not go to “restaurants or places where there’s more than 10 people.”

That was at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon. Later, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland ordered all restaurants in the city to close seating. Drive-thru and to-go orders may continue.

The six new cases reported Thursday are not related to each other. The majority are recuperating at home, Haushalter said. The common denominator is still travel. 

They also were identified almost entirely through the stepped-up analysis happening in private labs. As more of those results funnel in, the number of confirmed cases is expected to rise.

In the last 10 days, Baptist and Methodist hospital systems combined have tested more than 500 people who had symptoms and met other testing criteria and sent the tests to private labs for analysis.

St. Francis is doing the same thing.

The state health department is running tests in local Christ Community clinics in Memphis. This weekend, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, in partnership with the city and county, hopes to open a mass testing center at Tiger Lane off East Parkway. Patients will be seen by appointment only, and will need a doctor’s referral.

“We will be able to more per day then the whole state is doing right now,” said Dr. Jon McCullers, infectious disease expert and associate dean of UT’s College of Medicine.

Two drive-thru tents went up Thursday morning. Operations are expected to begin in a day or two. Initially, the mass testing center at Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds will serve people who have been referred for testing by their physicians.

The issue for UT is that it cannot get enough supplies, including swabs, to immediately open the center.

“As we get those things solved, we’ll be able to see more and more. We’ll let the public know when doctors can start sending patients to us,” McCullers said.

UT is making the test kits on campus and will analyze the results in its labs, potentially cutting days off the time between when the test is administered and results are known.

“This test will really enable us to get to a large scale and in a very rapid period of time,” McCullers said.

While local hospitals, he said, are not experiencing supply shortages, hospital leaders are concerned about the possibility and have taken steps to limit the use of specialized equipment, including masks.

For days, it’s been impossible to know what percentage of people are testing positive because state law requires commercial labs to report only the number that test positive, not the total number tested.

Things may be changing now, Haushalter said.

“The Tennessee Department of Health is asking commercial labs to voluntarily submit to the state how many they have processed,” she said. “And that’s in the very beginning stages, so there might be some glitches in the data, but they’re attempting to get that data.

“The reason that’s important is to look at positivity rates,” she said.

Another change is that health departments have been directed by the Centers for Disease Control to keep tallies of local cases it is monitoring, not those associated with travel.

On Wednesday, 130 people were being monitored by the Shelby County Health Department. Thursday, the number dropped to 81 as the new tallying took effect.

Each is in quarantine, isolation or has been identified as a contact of a confirmed case.

And now, with 10 cases here, the Shelby County Health Department will also begin posting the age of each confirmed case on its website.

“Previously, we haven’t released ages because our numbers are so small, but we’ll begin to release the age ranges so people have a better sense of what age category is being impacted,” Haushalter said.

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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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