Isolation, snow punching COVID just when it’s weak

By , Daily Memphian Updated: February 18, 2021 10:10 AM CT | Published: February 18, 2021 4:00 AM CT

It’s cold, scary and more than inconvenient, but this weather-forced lockdown is absolutely golden, doctors say, when it comes to slowing transmission of the COVID virus.

Even a few days can make a difference.

New round of snowfall moving in Tuesday evening; Strickland declares weather emergency

If that seems like magical thinking, Dr. Clay Jackson says it only took a couple of days of people staying with relatives at Thanksgiving and Christmas to build the holiday surge.

“It does make a difference,” said Jackson, clinical assistant professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine. 

That this weather system is so large, covering much of the southern half of the nation and flowing into the Eastern Seaboard is all the better, says Dr. Scott Strome, executive dean of the College of Medicine at UTHSC, because it has effectively halted the daily exchanges COVID needs to survive.

“Nobody wants to implement the shutdowns because obviously, there is drain on business, etc.,” Strome said.

But when it happens naturally, there can be no finger-pointing. And with more precipitation predicted, this long wintry stretch could force a week or more of social distancing over a huge swath of the nation.

“If you think about what we know about this virus and when we do the best is after a period of enforced distancing through lockdown procedures or Safer at Home,” Strome said.

“My thought is this is going to really have benefits as our numbers keep coming down.”

The problem is that the weather has also shut down vaccination sites, but Strome pointed out that several were open Saturday, a day marked with widespread cancellations in the Mid-South. And the Pipkin Building site was open Sunday when roads were snow-packed and temperatures were in the teens.

Weather closes all vaccination centers through Saturday

To have a natural lockdown now when the nation is experiencing declining cases it has not seen since September and October catches the pandemic at a weak point, which bodes well for the long haul.

“If this weather had come when cases were rising, it might not have helped that much, but now that we’ve driven the numbers down so low, it may be an accelerator in decreasing cases,” Jackson said.

“I am going to wager that two weeks from now, we will see a further dip,” added Jackson, who also has a private practice at Comprehensive Primary Care in Atoka. “We may get to double digits (in new cases), and I am going to predict that actually we will.”

Around March 1, Jackson is looking for daily case rates to fall into the 80s and 90s.

The Shelby County Health Department reported 84 new cases Wednesday, Feb. 17, no new deaths.

With experts expecting FDA approval of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine late this month, President Joe Biden said Tuesday that by late July the vaccine would be available to anyone who wants one. 

“That’s a long way to wait, but with each passing day locally, we are vaccinating more and more people in the county and across the state,” Jackson said. “That is just good news for everyone because it is one less place that virus can reside or cause serious illness.

“Despite some blips, long lines and frustration, I have been extremely pleased that we have vaccinated as many people as we have,” he said.

“We have surpassed, at least in doses given, the number of people who have natural infection (in Shelby County); that’s a landmark. We are getting close to the 10% mark of people vaccinated; that’s a landmark. It’s only going to get better as we expand things in the state,” Jackson said.

As of Wednesday in Shelby County, the Health Department has reported 86,606 cases or probable cases of COVID-19. More than 100,324 doses have been administered; 72,201 have received the first dose. 

A weather-induced isolation of 10 days could have a remarkable effect, says Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, head of infectious disease at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis.

“It doesn’t take long for important trends to occur …. Blunting the transmission curve substantially downward for 10 solid days would be an extraordinary benefit,” Threlkeld said.

The long winter storm also comes as variant strains are increasing and multiplying. At least two strains, the U.K. and Brazilian, have been detected through genome sequencing in Shelby County.

The tension now, Threlkeld says, is between the decreasing number of cases and the new variants, which in some cases are doubling every 10 days.

“There is a group out there that says, ‘We’re doing so well, we need to open things up, and we don’t need to worry about all the restrictions,’” he said. “Then, there’s another group that says, ‘No, no, these variants supersede that, and we need to continue 100% of those restrictions.’”

Threlkeld tends to agree with the latter, referring to the strains as “stronger, faster and smarter” players in the game to shut down the virus progresses.

“I think we have to be very careful to continue to do our very best until the final horn sounds in the competition, and that’s going to be when we get to herd immunity or beyond,” he said.

He and other scientists expect many other variants exist, including in the United States, which sequences only about 1% of the variants “popping up in our country,” Threlkeld said.

“We may find that as we sequence more that we have a bigger problem than what we realize,” he said.

Local laboratories are sending about 100 random COVID-19 specimens a week to UTHSC for analysis.

Both of the variants known to exist here were identified in the biocontainment lab there run by virologist Colleen Jonsson.

“We’re actually doing better in Memphis, with the folks at UT sequencing a larger percentage than a lot of places are in the country,” Threlkeld said, “but until we do more of that, we may not fully even understand the degree of the problem that we face.”


Sno-mageddon Dr. Clayton Jackson Dr. Scott Strome Dr. Stephen Thelkeld weather-induced confinement
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.


Want to comment on our stories? Or read the comments of others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only subscribers can view or add comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here