Health official: COVID-19 surge hospital doesn’t have to be our destiny

By , Daily Memphian Published: August 08, 2020 4:00 AM CT

One projection model shows a potential surge of about 1,100 COVID-19 Memphis-area hospitalizations in October, but “we don’t have to get there,” according to the Shelby County Health Department’s chief epidemiologist.

Until last week, the COVID-19 Hospital Impact Model for Epidemics (CHIME) from the University of Pennsylvania predicted 1,500 daily hospitalizations around that time. Several factors the model takes into account when making projections are the reproductive rate, case doubling rate and current coronavirus hospitalizations.

Hospitals adding beds, staffing up

David Sweat, Health Department chief epidemiologist, has used CHIME throughout the pandemic to forecast a potential hospitalization surge.

Sweat attributed the lower projection found last week to recent policies implemented including the countywide mask mandate and closures of bars and limiting restaurant hours. If the public continues on this trajectory, the model could have even a better long-term outlook.

“We do expect under current models the likely peak of hospitalizations will come at the end of October,” Sweat said. “With a daily hospital census of around 1,000, 1,100 cases at the time. That’s not our destiny. We don’t have to get there.”

Coronavirus hospitalizations in the Memphis area have climbed well into the 300s during the past month as new cases increased at record levels locally. For reference on April 10, in the earlier days of this pandemic, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations was 125.

This has led to total hospital capacity recently ranging in utilization percentage between high 80s to early 90s due to increased community transmission of the virus.

The number of COVID-19 patients in those hospitals is 359, according to the state’s Health Resource Tracking System. On total hospital capacity, acute care bed usage is 90% while intensive care staffed beds are at 92% utilization, as of Thursday afternoon.

COVID patients currently represent 31% of ICU hospitalizations and 11% of acute care staffed beds. Hospital data includes facilities in Shelby, Lauderdale and Tipton counties in Tennessee, Crittenden County in Arkansas, and DeSoto County in Mississippi.

Shelby County’s COVID-19 cases have stabilized but with several caveats

Shelby County Health Department Health Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph stated previously when evaluating hospital capacity, it’s more than looking solely at the number of coronavirus patients.

“On our hospitalizations, we anticipate there will be a fluctuation based not only on cases, but also just in terms of occupancy of the hospital,” Randolph said Thursday. “Other things happen to people. Not everyone who is in the hospital is affected with COVID-19. Trauma occurs. Elective surgeries occur. Violence occurs. Different reasons for people being admitted into the hospital.”

Surge capacity beds are available at local hospitals, but additional medical staff will be needed for those beds. The building that formerly housed The Commercial Appeal at 495 Union Ave., has 400 more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients if needed.

Sweat said hospital utilization in the area was about 82% in February, compared to its current utilization above 90%.

While local hospitals can manage the current capacity, Sweat said the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 joint task often discusses surge plans with hospital leaders.

On suppressing the virus in Shelby County, Sweat said it’s possible to accomplish that without having another lockdown but that depends on personal choices that could drive up or slow down the pandemic.

With no optimistic signs of a potential vaccine or herd immunity in the immediate future, the only ways to slow the virus’s spread are by wearing a facial covering or mask, hand washing and social distancing, Sweat said.

“It can be done,” Sweat said. “But it’s only going to work if everybody pitches in and does their part.”

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


David Sweat Shelby County Health Department hospital capacity Dr. Bruce Randolph coronavirus
Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf covers Bartlett and North Memphis neighborhoods for The Daily Memphian. He also analyzes COVID-19 data each week. Omer is a former Jackson Sun reporter and University of Memphis graduate.


Want to comment on our stories or respond to others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only paid subscribers can add their thoughts or upvote/downvote comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here