Health officials: COVID hospitalizations going up substantially

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 29, 2020 3:43 PM CT | Published: October 29, 2020 12:43 PM CT
<strong>Christ Community Health Services staff member waits for patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2020 on Lamar Avenue.</strong> (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Christ Community Health Services staff member waits for patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2020 on Lamar Avenue. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

With coronavirus cases rising, the Health Department amplified its message Thursday, Oct. 29, for everyone in the Mid-South to mask and social distance, adding pleas from leaders in the four hospital systems and Doug McGowen, City of Memphis chief operating officer.

“Hospitalizations are going up substantially and starting from a higher place,” McGowen said. “I understand you are tired of the pandemic. I’m tired of it. We are all tired of it. But I know that we can do this. Together, we can do this.”

Since early October, COVID-19 hospitalizations at Methodist Le Bonheur and Baptist Memorial have more than doubled. Early Thursday, Methodist alone had 121, up from 57 on Oct. 4, its lowest level since the summer peak.

“We have a surge plan in place in each of our hospitals,” said Dr. Cassandra Howard, vice president and chief medical officer at Methodist-Germantown Hospital. “We have had significant successes with staff recruitment and are continuing to recruit. We are in a critical moment. We cannot lose focus.” 


Referencing news reports that residents in the suburbs and across county and state lines are not masking, Jennifer Chiusano, chief nursing officer of St. Francis Hospital-Memphis, was blunt.

“It’s not political folks. Please, I am begging you. I am imploring you. Wear your masks. And social distancing is incredibly important.

“We’re all happy to take care of patients. We want to take care of patients. It is heartbreaking to see patients die from COVID. I’ve experienced that. I’ve experienced colleagues dying,” Chiusano said.

In expanded contact tracing interviews the Health Department has done with 704 infected people in the last month, 63% had symptoms but were out shopping, meeting with friends and going to work.

“These are all symptomatic individuals, people who should be staying home, should be isolating and protecting others from coming in contact with the virus that they have in their body, and yet they’re out in the world,” said David Sweat, Shelby County Health Department’s deputy director.

Contact tracers learned the activities of these infected individuals included participating in sporting events, going to gyms and traveling outside the county.

From the interviews, the Health Department also knows that about 22% of the people had no symptoms. They were diagnosed only because they got tested.

“That’s why we have to always take precautions all the time, regardless of whether we feel good, or we don’t feel good, whether we feel sick or we don’t feel sick,” Sweat said. “We still could be infected with COVID-19. And we could be sharing that virus with other people.” 

Certain job sectors represented elevated risks; 22% of the 704 worked in health care, followed by manufacturing/warehouses (14%) and schools (12%).

“These occupational sectors are over represented in the sample of people who we have recently interviewed, meaning that the people who work in those locations are perhaps at greater risk of transmitting the virus or encountering the virus,” Sweat said.

“I just want to remind you, the most important thing you can do if you are symptomatic is stay home. And if you are outside your home, regardless of how you feel, it is desperately important that we all wear masks.”

The elephant in every task force briefing now is whether business restrictions will be renewed. Task force members are divided on this. Several, including chief pediatrician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and infectious disease researcher Dr. Jon McCullers, say that closing bars and restaurants now does little good if that is not where transmission is occurring.

“One of the key takeaways today is that if we all do our part to protect ourselves, each other, our families and our communities, we can move forward without impacting businesses to the degree that we did earlier in the pandemic,” said Alisa Haushalter, Health Department director.

“I want to reinforce what I said Tuesday. There are many counties that do not require masking. It’s important that wherever you travel that you wear your mask, regardless of whether it’s required or not.”

And while it’s been critical for months that people mask in public, as the holidays and flu season approach the message extends to masking at home when guests are present or when in someone else’s home.

“We do want people to frequent our local businesses, but if you choose to go to a restaurant, really try to go at a time of day where it’s not as busy,” Haushalter said. “Wear your mask at all times with the exception of when you’re eating or drinking. These are things that will reduce transmission to those at your table but also to those who are employed there.”

She also cautions that is critical to be thinking ahead to holiday plans and limiting them to one’s family with perhaps one other.

As doctors have long predicted, the flu and allergy season complicates the COVID-19 issue because the symptoms are similar.

Haushalter’s advice is to take note of the first day of symptoms.

“That’s really the day that you need to stay home and surely get tested and then wait until that test result comes back before you do anything else.”

About 35% of infected people in Shelby County are 18-34 years old. They are also the largest spreaders. But nearly 89% of the 570 fatalities in Shelby County are 55 and over.

“Of course, we are intergenerational in our relationships. We’re intergenerational in our households, and in our work environments, and in our social environments. So it’s really important for all of us to take all the precautions to protect each other from the worst outcomes,” Sweat said.

Current Coronavirus Statistics

As of Thursday, there were 2,853 active cases in the county, including 188 new cases and one death; 7,849 people are in quarantine.

The Health Department has compiled an easy-to-navigate website with current information, including testing sites and FAQ. People may also call 211 to be connected to an operator who can help them find access to grants still available for rent, mortgage, utility and small business assistance, including stylists, artists and restaurants.

The hospital leaders added a palpable sense of the urgency to the briefing. Dr. Martin Croce, chief medical officer at Regional One Health, is a longtime hero in this community for the trauma patients he has saved. 

His words were simple. 

“Frankly, wearing a mask is just not that big of a deal. You just wear it ... It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of actually caring for our fellow Memphians, our fellow Shelby Countians, our fellow Southerners, our fellow Americans, for goodness sakes.”

He said he’ll miss the hugs from his long-last aunts during the holidays too. 

“We just can’t do that this year. And in order that we can do that next year, we have to act now so that we can get ahead of this thing, and and stamp out this this disease.”


He had some other advice:

“Just imagine there’s a bear behind every corner, and it will sneak up and get you.

“Please, we must stay vigilant the entire time that we’re awake.”


coronavirus Shelby County Health Department Doug McGowen Jennifer Chiusano Dr. Cassandra Howard David Sweat Alisa Haushalter
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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