With coronavirus surge expected, local leaders withhold key data

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 26, 2020 6:17 PM CT | Published: March 26, 2020 6:05 PM CT

By some measures, as Memphis finishes its first week of a significant shutdown, the state of the coronavirus pandemic locally is not too bad:

  • There have been no deaths.
  • There are only a handful of coronavirus patients hospitalized.
  • There are about 500 empty hospital beds in the metro Memphis area.
  • There are “thousands of tests” available and the number of people being tested is increasing.
  • There are no shortages of ventilators.

But it’s an incomplete picture, local health experts insisted Thursday, and many agreed things are going to get worse. 

Testing numbers statewide released; local numbers still unknown

A surge in coronavirus cases is coming to Memphis. “I am confident there will be a surge” in cases, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Thursday.

 “Yes, it will definitely get worse before it gets better,” said Emory’s Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease expert who has been hired by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to consult on the crisis.

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Jon McCullers, the senior associate dean for clinical affairs at the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, was more precise: “If you ask me what is going to happen in Memphis, I would tell you it’s probably going to look like New York, just to a little different scale — we are going to have the hospitals overwhelmed and people dying.”

McCullers said Memphis has some factors operating in its favor, which could be cause for some optimism. Memphis is getting the surge a little later than other cities and is able to prepare better, he said. Also, the population density in Memphis is very low compared to other cities that have been hit hard.

But that surge is coming, he said, in “a week or two, realistically. That’s what we are preparing for in the hospitals. We’re hoping we’re wrong. But that’s definitely what we are getting ready for.”

As Memphis is getting ready, key information is being withheld from the public. Local health and government leaders refuse to say how many people have been tested, how many coronavirus patients are currently in the hospital or how many test kits are available locally.

The lack of local transparency makes it harder to provide appropriate context on the current state of the pandemic in Memphis. And depending on whom you ask, you will get different answers.

Health dept. head: COVID-19 testing ‘sufficient,’ with full numbers in a week

For example, national and statewide figures on the number of people being tested are released daily, but Haushalter has refused to release even an estimate of the number of people tested locally. Haushalter said such a release is about a week away; she is waiting on local numbers from the state, which is collecting testing data from private clinics.

But several local government and health officials told The Daily Memphian Thursday there is a known estimate on the number of people tested locally, but they are not allowed to release it. The information has to come from Haushalter, they said.

<strong>Manoj Jain</strong>

Manoj Jain

Medical leaders — including Jain and McCullers – refused Thursday to release an estimate.

“You have to get that from [Haushalter]; she has it,” Jain said.

Absent an estimate of how many local people have been tested, it is impossible to determine the percentage of those testing positive, an important metric. 

As a result, if you ask three local experts who should know, you will get three different answers:

  • Haushalter on Monday put the county positive rate at about 3%.
  • McCullers, looking a the Memphis metro region, said on Thursday 5 to 6 percent of the tests have come back positive.
  • Also on Thursday, Jain said it was about 9 to 10 percent positive.

If any of these figures are accurate, it means, roughly, that somewhere between 2,000 (using Jain’s 10% positive rate) and 6,000 (using Haushalter’s 3% positive tests) people have been tested locally.

In effort to report at least a rough estimate, The Daily Memphian asked Wednesday for results from some local hospitals. Some but not all were willing to release the information: Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare told The Daily Memphian its numbers would have to come from the Shelby County Health Department.

“That’s not accurate,” Haushalter responded. “What the hospitals give us are the positive reports only, consistent with state law.”

“And we understand the importance of having that total number as well as those positive for that positivity rate,” she said. “But we are not going to release information that is inaccurate.”

Health officials reaffirm stay-at-home orders to ‘starve virus of new hosts’

Also not being released are the number of tests available locally — Haushalter would only say “there are thousands” — or how many people are currently hospitalized with the virus. Haushalter said Thursday 10 people total have been hospitalized, but refused to say how many are currently hospitalized.

Local and state leaders have asked for more transparency. Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville told The Daily Memphian Wednesday that the low number of positive cases in outlying counties is “making people think falsely” that the virus is not rampant in areas outside the state’s biggest cities.

“We need, at every level, to have transparency about testing,” Stewart said.

The lack of context also hampers the conversation about when Memphis could reopen non-essential businesses and schools.

“There’s no doubt about it, in the community at large, there is some panic,” Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said Thursday on WKNO’s Behind the Headlines show. The way to combat it, he said, “is making sure we have conversations, very often, that we are transparent.”

Behind the Headlines Podcast: COVID-19 in the Mid-South

For Jain and Haushalter, that means more social distancing, not less. 

“If we keep social distancing, we can literally starve the virus,” Jain said. “We can starve it by not letting it feed on social interaction.”

How long can Memphians be expected to remain on this course? “We are not talking days,” Jain said. “And we are not talking years. We are talking weeks.”


coronavirus COVID-19
Ronnie Ramos

Ronnie Ramos

Ronnie Ramos was executive editor of The Daily Memphian from 2020 to 2021. 


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