Sanford: Three reassuring words in the COVID crisis

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 30, 2020 6:26 AM CT | Published: April 30, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Otis Sanford
Daily Memphian

Otis Sanford

Otis Sanford holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and is the political analyst and commentator for WATN Local 24. Contact him at 901-678-3669 or at o.sanford@memphis.edu. Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.

People are recovering.

Those three words stood out most as I watched the live streaming of the COVID-19 local update Tuesday, April 28. An update full of vital information to help get us through this unprecedented crisis in which we find ourselves.

Lots of people who call Shelby County home have contracted the coronavirus in ways still being determined through contact tracing. Despite our best efforts, we still know very little about this disease and why it attacks some people worse than others.

That’s what makes it so scary. It’s what has most of us confined to our homes and distancing ourselves from others, including family.

But people are recovering. And at the moment, that’s more important. Because despite what the politicians in Washington and some governors think, people should come first, then the economy.

As of the Tuesday briefing, 2,358 people had tested positive in Shelby County for COVID-19. And sadly, 46 of them had died. It could be worse, and likely would have been had not our local political leaders early on made public health the top priority.

It’s as if COVID-19 took a wrecking ball to our daily lives in just seven weeks. But watching Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department, explain our new reality in a calm, measured and fact-based tone, I came away with more optimism than pessimism about our prospects for overcoming this ruthless pandemic.

Local case rate slows slightly but bigger question looms over data

No elected leaders were present that day. They didn’t need to be. They had accomplished one important mission a day earlier when seven of the eight mayors in Shelby County appeared at a briefing together. The missing mayor, Keith McDonald of Bartlett, sent his top assistant.

It was a welcome sight – amid partisan disagreements elsewhere – as they expressed a unified front in fighting the coronavirus outbreak while carefully planning for reopening the county’s economy at a time that’s still uncertain.

“Our approach will be data-driven not date-driven,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. Which means the health care experts, not politicians, are taking the lead steering our economic engine back on its tracks.

So on Tuesday, except for brief comments by Doug McGowen, chief operating officer for the City of Memphis, and Dr. Bruce Randolph, the county’s health officer, Haushalter carried the day. She painstakingly shared the most up-to-date toll that COVID-19 had taken on people in our community.

Then she pivoted nicely into a litany of steps her department – working with other agencies, private businesses and governments – is taking to increase testing, do effective contact tracing and reach highly vulnerable areas where the virus is especially menacing.

She talked about focusing much needed attention on nursing homes, detention facilities and various neighborhoods that have been under-served by testing. She talked about being more effective in reaching the Latino community with testing, and was quick to stress that undocumented immigrants had no need to fear that their immigration status would be reported to federal authorities if they got tested.

Haushalter took each question from reporters, including the convoluted ones, and framed her answers around the overall message that Shelby County collectively is fighting the COVID-19 battle the right way.

And no, that does not mean our local officials have always done things promptly or perfectly. Testing initially was slow to ramp up, and we did not sound the alarm soon enough that African Americans, especially, were at higher risk of contracting the virus and an even greater one of dying from it.

But when it comes to overall responsiveness, believability and coordination, local officials and policymakers have performed far better than those at the state and federal level. Which means this fight is a local fight.

Yes, we need federal and state help through stimulus money that will go toward helping the Health Department increase contact tracing. Cash-starved local governments need stimulus funds to keep paying first responders and other essential public workers.

Small businesses throughout the county need stimulus help as well to stay afloat. And individuals who qualify for one-time stimulus checks should get them without further delays.

But when the talk turns to reopening the economy, local leaders know best. And we are not there yet. The virus is still a problem for African Americans who make up 54% of Shelby County’s population, but account for about 68% of cases and more than 70% of deaths.

Those disparities are not all the result of poor health conditions or unwise life choices. Black residents are more likely to work in industries, such as nursing homes, that are more susceptible to the spread of the coronavirus.

“While people of color make up one-quarter of the total U.S. workforce, they comprise the majority of the nursing (home) assistant workforce,” according to New York-based PHInternational, a nursing home and senior care advocacy group. “Over one-third of these workers are Black or African American.”

It’s one reason why the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators is calling on Gov. Bill Lee’s administration to increase the collection and sharing of ethnicity-related data on COVID-19, including by county, ZIP code and census tract.

The state Department of Health previously announced it is creating a statewide health disparities task force aimed at determining the impact of the pandemic on minority communities.

In Memphis and Shelby County, that means more testing of black and brown residents, more information going to impacted neighborhoods about the need for continued social distancing and other safety measures, and greater protection and incentives for those who work in nursing homes, jails and confined – yet essential – businesses.

Haushalter and her team get that. So do our elected leaders, city and suburban. It’s why I have much greater confidence in the messages I’m getting from our local responders than anything I’m hearing from the White House or Nashville.

People are recovering, Haushalter said with assurance Tuesday. I believe her. And in time so will our economy.

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