Cohen concerned about regional COVID-19 impact on Memphis hospitals

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 30, 2020 1:01 PM CT | Published: March 30, 2020 1:01 PM CT

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis sent a letter Monday, March 30, to the governors of Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas urging them to adopt the shelter in place or safer at home standards for their states that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and the six suburban mayors have already put in place for Shelby County.

“If the virus comes, which it will, and it strikes hard in rural west Tennessee and eastern Arkansas and north Mississippi, Memphis will feel it,” Cohen said in an online press conference.

“Those citizens will come to Memphis for health care since some of their counties do not have ventilators,” the Memphis Democrat said. “That will put a crush on our hospitals.”

Memphis hospitals have historically been the critical care and trauma centers for the three-state region.

Some of the city’s health care professionals have also expressed concern that the closing of rural hospitals in West Tennessee before the pandemic will also have an impact on the number of virus cases they see. The hospitals closed after several pre-pandemic bids to expand Medicaid to the uninsured failed in the Tennessee Legislature.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee — as well as Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, all Republicans— have so far not included in their statewide orders the broader restrictions in place in Memphis.

During a visit to Memphis last week, Lee said Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas each have those kind of orders in place and that such measures may not work well for other parts of the state that are more sparsely populated.

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Reeves has said gatherings of 10 or more are banned by Mississippi’s order. But he said a stricter statewide order is “not sustainable.” Reeves has also said that he doesn’t want to follow what he has called a “Chinese” model for battling the pandemic.

Cohen also said payments to citizens to ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic should start showing up by direct deposit in some bank accounts as early as this week. The payments were part of a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the House and Senate last week and signed by Donald Trump.

There is plenty of political rancor left from the process of reaching a compromise. Cohen gives the House’s Democratic leadership and majority credit for directing forgivable loans to businesses that agree not to lay off any employees and bars them from using the money to buy back stocks.

“It did change to where it’s not top down but bottom up,” he said. “The employees will be looked at first to get funding. The funding doesn’t go to the corporation. It goes to the corporation’s employees. … There was a lot of Democratic input.”

Cohen, a vocal critic of Trump before the pandemic, was again critical of Trump for trying to ignore Congressional oversight of how the stimulus funds are spent and for downplaying the impact of the pandemic.

“Now we see legends dying,” Cohen said of the death over the weekend of country music star Joe Diffie and the hospitalization of singer-songwriter John Prine.

“It’s a very, very serious threat to our health as well as our economic health,” he said.

The stimulus bill that became law last week included some funding unrelated to the pandemic or the pandemic’s economic impact.

That includes tax breaks for real estate investors in the Senate version with which Cohen disagrees and called “unbelievable.”

It also includes funding for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Public Radio that Cohen supported.

“Those are federal and national treasures that lost a lot of money that we are responsible for maintaining and keeping up,” Cohen said. “I did think there were private supporters of those institutions that could have put money in there at the drop of a dime. But I know those people are putting money in other places to help.”


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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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