Haushalter hopes COVID effort is model for other chronic city problems

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 30, 2020 7:07 AM CT | Published: September 29, 2020 5:21 PM CT

There is almost certainly a connection between COVID-19 and the record-high homicide and opioid deaths in Shelby County. The tricky part is linking them.

“What’s difficult to do is actually draw a straight line,” said Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department.

Coronavirus: No new deaths for second day in a row; positivity rate down to 3%

“It’s difficult to say because of COVID, we have had increased overdoses. What we know is that our overdoses were trending up already. And that we have more fentanyl on the market.

 “When you have an increase in drug trafficking, you may also consequentially have an increase in homicides,” she said Tuesday, Sept. 29, during the COVID task force briefing.

Monday, Memphis set a grim record with its 229th homicide and three full months left on the calendar.

The 12-year-old child who died Monday night in a shooting in Westwood has not been identified. No one has been charged in the case, which also left a man in critical condition.

Tuesday morning, the record grew to 230 when Memphis police confirmed the death of a woman shot at a McDonald’s drive-thru on Sunday.

County health board approved

The number surpasses the 228 killed in all of 2016, which at that point was the highest year of homicides since 213 people were killed in 1993.

Much less publicized is that the number of opioid deaths has surpassed the homicide rate to date. As of last Friday, 298 people in Shelby County had died of overdose, up 39% over the same time last year.

The average age was 40.7 years, according to health department data.

The segment of the population hit hardest are white men, who account for 36% of the deaths, followed by black men with 30% of the fatalities.

In the 34 days between April 27 and May 30, 482 people overdosed in the county, according to first-responder data; 70 died.

In that timeframe, the health department issued 45 spike alerts, a trigger when overdose deaths begin surpassing what data predict they will be.

In May 2019, slightly fewer than 30 people in the county died of overdose.

The count includes all overdoses that are recorded in the county, even if the deceased was not a county resident.

The number of suicides and divorce filings are also up, Haushalter said. All of these signs of hardship in the community are overall indicators of health from a public health perspective.

Spikes in OD rates sign of anguish across county

While there clearly is a pandemic effect, Haushalter says, she challenged the broader community to use the same power of board networks it pulled together to control COVID-19 to take on other pervasive problems, including Memphis’ historically high homicide rate.

“When we look at the numbers of people who have died from COVID, and we look at the same number, or potentially over several years, the same number of young people dying of homicide, we have to be willing to step up and do things differently,” she said.

“If we have a national reputation of being a violent community, businesses are less likely to come here; people are less likely to seek jobs here.”

One of the challenges, Haushalter said, will be the political will to mount a multi-year effort to change things.

“One of the things that public health can do is to elevate violence as a public health issue, and that has not always been the case,” she said. “Oftentimes, violence is viewed as an enforcement issue, but it is truly related to other underlying causes, what we call social determinants of health.”

They include everything from poverty to systemic and historic racism, poor high school graduation rates and employment levels.

“If we address those root causes, we ultimately impact violence, but we also have to focus our efforts on the fallout, or the consequences of violence. Those traumatic experiences for children and adults really have lifelong impacts,” she said.

Number of local COVID-positive ICU patients remains under 60

If they are not addressed, people are not able to contribute to the society at a meaningful level, she said.

On the COVID front, the slight uptick in cases from Labor Day has now subsided and is not expected to return.

Based on current cases and reproduction rates, modeling suggests a second surge could occur here in March with hospitalizations surpassing 300 a day.

“What is important to note about that is that it’s a very small number compared to our original projections,” Haushalter said.

The average number of daily new cases in the last week has hovered at 128. The reproductive rate is below 1, which means on average, infected people are passing it on to less than one person.

“The important thing is that we do not want to become complacent. We are in a very good place currently but we want to continue in a positive trend,” said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

The goal ultimately is providing a safe enough environment that children can return to their classrooms.

At the University of Memphis, football players who tested positive have recovered, according to Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director for the health department.

“We are continuing to work closely with the athletic department, and as the numbers improve, we anticipate making some changes in our policies related to attendance.”


Alisa Haushalter Dr. Bruce Randolph Mayor Lee Harris homicide rates overdose deaths
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 business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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