Shelby County likely through worst of pandemic, health official says

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 04, 2021 3:16 PM CT | Published: March 04, 2021 12:46 PM CT

Shelby County’s likely survived the worst of COVID-19, though there are two caveats that could alter the trajectory, David Sweat, county health department deputy director, said Thursday.

Released emails show early vaccine questions between Memphis, county health officials

The first is “prematurely declaring victory” by reopening too fast before vaccinating enough people, he said, against a virus that has killed more than 1,500 people in Shelby County and half-a-million nationwide.

Also with more variants emerging in Shelby County – including strains from the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico — Sweat said if those strains can evade the vaccine’s protection or spread in areas that are unvaccinated and unprepared it could lead to another wave or surge.

“That’s why we continue to ask for people to be patient and follow the social distancing and control measures guidelines and get vaccinated, so that we can avoid those pitfalls,” Sweat said Thursday at the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 task force briefing.

As of Thursday, the City of Memphis is 16% toward its goal of vaccinating 700,000 people by Aug. 1 with 111,145 people receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, according to the Shelby County Health Department.

Memphis took over vaccine distribution from Shelby County last week after a state investigation uncovered problems with the initial rollout. One of the key findings was more than 2,400 wasted doses in Shelby County.

City Fire Director Gina Sweat is second-in-command to city Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen in Memphis’ vaccination distribution efforts. She gave specific details on the daily process behind managing and storing the vaccine properly before injected in the arms of thousands of county residents daily.

Regional One Health and Poplar Healthcare receive and store the vaccine doses, through a partnership with the Memphis Fire Department.

Each day, the city gives them a request for how much vaccine it plans to distribute the next day. Regional One and Poplar Healthcare then thaw the vaccine in its refrigerator the night before distribution.

The next morning, MFD employees take the vaccine from its pharmacy partners to each specific pod site and store it until it’s ready for distribution, the fire director said.

Gina Sweat said the city has two employees assigned to monitor the coolers, which contain digital thermometers, and each hour are responsible for documenting its temperature. 

When the day concludes, any thawed doses are returned to the facility, data is recorded electronically and reviewed again to make sure there were no issues and everything was documented properly, she said.

“It’s a very meticulous process, but it’s one of the key processes in making sure that we handled the vaccine properly and get it out to the community,” Gina Sweat said.

Another factor that plays into this process is those with appointments showing up on time or canceling with enough notice to allow someone else to utilize that time slot. The city is reporting about a 10% no-show rate on vaccination appointments, though some of that is attributed to people scheduling at multiple sites, officials said.

“The only way to manage the vaccine distribution process is to predict and control how much vaccine do we need to have thawed and ready to distribute every day,” Fire Director Sweat said.

Shelby County, state align on COVID-19 vaccination phases

A new appointment system should be online within two weeks, replacing the current SignUpGenius, Gina Sweat said. That will allow people to schedule first and second doses simultaneously, streamlining a process that’s caused frustration since vaccine rollout began in December.

While there’s a significant shift in attention toward vaccine distribution and less on coronavirus testing in recent months, David Sweat said there remains over 17,000 community testing slots in Shelby County each week and testing remains critical in limiting the virus.

“It is the first step in the process of understanding your status, so that if you happen to be COVID-positive, with or without symptoms, whether those symptoms are mild, severe or non-existent at all,” the health department deputy director said.

It’s also another sign of the growing tools available in limiting community transmission since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Shelby County nearly a year ago.

David Sweat said the Mid-South has gone through a “microcosm” of what the entire country has faced in the past year – a 12-month period that included challenges to set up testing sites, the creation of the COVID-19 task force to combat three local coronavirus surges and most recently, vaccine distribution. 

“We’re resilient. We’ve learned that we’re flexible. That we have the ability to pivot. Ability to partner. That we share resources,” David Sweat said on what’s he learned in the past year. “We share information, and we can mount an effective response as a community and have no doubt that we will succeed with the vaccine campaign as well as a community in partnership with the city of Memphis. In partnership with the healthcare systems, pharmacies and all people that are involved.”


Gina Sweat David Sweat COVID-19 vaccine Memphis Fire Department Shelby County Health Department city of Memphis
Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf

Omer Yusuf covers Bartlett and North Memphis neighborhoods for The Daily Memphian. He also analyzes COVID-19 data each week. Omer is a former Jackson Sun reporter and University of Memphis graduate.


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