Hospital load ‘manageable’ now; surge expected in month

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 31, 2020 4:11 PM CT | Published: March 31, 2020 4:00 AM CT

While the number of COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization is “still manageable” in Shelby County, state officials over the weekend scouted buildings that could be quickly converted to temporary hospitals, ideally with room for 1,000 beds, freeing up critical ICU space.

“They are actually looking at hard-wall facilities first,” said Alisa Haushalter, head of the Shelby County Health Department, noting the county’s field hospital, a tent like-structure, could also help if hospitals here see a deluge of COVID-19 cases from surrounding areas.

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“The goal is to have those things available and ready before we have the surge, so we don’t end up like New York,” she said, “where you all of sudden need beds and they’re unavailable.”

Shelby County is surrounded by counties with either very small community hospitals or none at all.

Neighboring Fayette and Haywood counties have no hospitals. Tipton County has one bed for every 1,227 people, according to the Tennessee Health Care Capacity Dashboard created by the Sycamore Institute in Nashville.

Hospital closings in Tennessee have left 20 of the 95 counties with no hospitals.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen Monday urged Gov. Bill Lee to enact a statewide shelter-in-place order, saying without it, Memphis, which borders Mississippi and Arkansas, which also lack the orders, “could become a hub of illness,” quickly overwhelming its hospitals.

<strong>Alisa Haushalter</strong>

Alisa Haushalter

“Particularly concerning is the lack of regional hospital access across state lines. Citizens from Arkansas and Mississippi regularly travel to Memphis for medical care and will do the same should they fall ill with COVID-19,” Cohen wrote.

Health authorities have confirmed multiple positives in an assisted living facility in East Memphis, where six people have tested positive, including five residents.

Haushalter would not name the facility but said it was strictly following infection-control protocols.

The health department followed up over the weekend, testing 22 people at the facility. In those tests, four tested positive; and four tests are still out.

Two of the six were confirmed in earlier screenings.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris predicts the pandemic will have serious effects on municipal and county budgets, estimating that state sales tax revenues will likely be down 20% to 30%.

While municipal budgets rely more on sales tax than the county does, Harris said it’s unlikely 2022 property assessments for tax purposes will not be affected.

<strong>Amy Weirich</strong>

Amy Weirich

District Attorney General Amy Weirich said substantial measures were being taken to clear “foot traffic” out of the county jail at 201 Poplar, including canceling court hearings in April for people not currently in custody, and all jury trials.

“We are working on whether or not we’re going to be able to convene a grand jury to hear cases that have been held to the action of the grand jury,” she said. 

Meanwhile, based on the model state and local leaders are using, the surge in Shelby County hospitalizations is expected around May 1.

Based on the current level of precautions mandated by the state, researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington predict the surge in Tennessee will happen April 26 when 3,494 of the state’s 7,812 hospital beds will be full, including 525 of its 629 ICU beds. They predict 35 deaths that day.

Surge dates are based on how effectively people are practicing social-distancing, Haushalter said.

“It can be staved off if we take action, and the critical takeaway message is if we engage in prevention, we can really allay that surge on the hospitals, and hopefully space out the need for ICU beds so it’s not all of a sudden,” she said.

The Shelby County Health Department in the last few days has begun providing more data behind the testing numbers, including percentages of positives by age range and gender, on its website,

A heat map, based on Saturday’s positive counts, shows testing is largely happening in more affluent parts of town, where people have insurance.

In higher poverty areas that surround the center of the city and the Poplar corridor, few cases have been identified, which means the number of positives could be skewed low.

“We know testing is available elsewhere, but people are not necessarily getting tested. So, we’ve got to get that data to have a better sense of the magnitude of the problem in Shelby County,” Haushalter said.

In testing over the weekend, Haushalter said positive rates ran about 2%, substantially lower than the 5%-7% Baptist Memorial Health Care has seen in its large-scale testing in the city.

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“Now, what we’re really looking for is to get testing across the county, so that all communities are equally represented in the testing data,” she said.

In Tennessee, it has so far been impossible for the public to see data, broken out by county, on the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU beds and ventilators available.

The data is collected by the Hospital Resource Tracking System, but it is not public.

Haushalter on Monday said the state health department would be adding several data fields to its reports, noting the data locally could be available next week.

“I think what is important to know is that bed number is important, but it’s not the be all, end all because patients can be moved. And people within the hospital setting can change rooms around. You can create ICU rooms or you can create negative-pressure rooms,” she said.

Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital has intentionally lowered its patient count to prepare for COVID-19 needs, it said Monday.

“Due to the lower patient volume, we are deploying nurses into different areas of need throughout the hospital,” Le Bonheur spokesperson David Henson said.

Some may be screening at entrances or have been moved to a labor pool ready to shift to other facilities if needed.

Le Bonheur also does not need medical equipment at this time, Henson said.

“We are taking names and contact information of anyone who is wishing to donate medical supplies if there is a future need.”

Saint Francis Hospital is not seeing shortages of ventilators or personal protection equipment, however, it is increasing its number of isolation rooms.

Methodist and Baptist did not respond Monday.

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March

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Alisa Haushalter Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris Amy Wei
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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