U.K. variant transitioning to dominant COVID-19 strain

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 06, 2021 4:42 PM CT | Published: April 06, 2021 12:52 PM CT

FEMA and the Department of Defense, with some 130 active service and Tennessee National Guard members, are poised to administer 90,000 additional doses of vaccine in an enormous tent next to the Pipkin Building the next six weeks.

The enlarged Pipkin operation, 940 Early Maxwell, will open at 8 a.m. Wednesday, April 7, and run 12 hours a day, seven days a week, into May.

Pipkin vaccinations will go 12 hours a day, 7 days a week

FEMA marshaled forces to set up shop here based on the size of the underserved population, said Gracia Szczech, regional administrator of FEMA Region4.

“It’s an exciting time to bring more vaccinations to the public and to ensure that we’re hitting the underserved communities,” she said Tuesday, April 6.

“This site is in particular accessible, whether it’s through mass transit, for drive-thru, for walk up, we want to make sure we are hitting all that public, so that it is open to everybody.”

The federal investment is not an indication that Shelby County was lagging others in the state in getting vaccination out.

“This was an opportunity for us. The state of Tennessee was given the opportunity for FEMA to bring additional vaccines,” said Doug McGowen, chief operating officer for the City of Memphis.

“That is one we readily embraced here, not because we were behind, because in fact, when this was first offered to us, we were actually still leading the state with the number of vaccinations that were given by county,” he said.

The federal government is bringing 21,000 extra doses a week for the period. The 6,000 not administered at the Pipkin weekly will be shared among the four other public sites in the county.

“I would be a fool to look at 21,000 additional vaccines and the opportunity that we have in this community and say, ‘No thank you,’” McGowen said. “We readily embraced the opportunity and the workforce that came along with that opportunity.

“And now, we need all of Memphis and Shelby County to embrace that opportunity as well so we can continue to get folks vaccinated, so that we can return to normal as we’ve all wanted to do.” 

The increase means that in a week’s time, Shelby County has gone from having capacity to give some 35,000 shots to now more than 51,000. As of noon Tuesday, there were 15,000 to 20,000 appointments still open through Saturday. 

Getting them filled has become a rallying cry on social media, including the Next Door app, and through community influencers using their personal platforms to connect and sell the vaccine.

The campaign comes as the rapidly growing U.K. variant now is believed to account for 30%-50% of the COVID virus cases circulating in the county. 

“What we know is in other communities once it’s gone past 50%, you tend to see an explosion of cases,” said David Sweat, deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department.

The vaccine is effective against the U.K. variant, which is also 50% more transmissible and thought to cause more severe disease.

“We’re in a race between how quickly we can vaccinate people and how quickly the variant virus takes over,” Sweat said.

The incidence of U.K. variant among the elderly here is low, he said, because those age groups have been receiving the vaccine since late December.

“The vaccine is protecting them. What we are seeing is that 69% of transmission of those variant strains is occurring in people less than 45 years old,” Sweat said.

That is the population least likely to have had a chance to be vaccinated.

“We’re appealing to everyone to come out and get a shot, but we are particularly appealing right now to people who are in their 20s, people in their 30s, people in their 40s,” Sweat said.

“The U.K. variant is causing the number of people in hospitals in the state of Michigan to explode,” he said. “And the predominance of the people being hospitalized are in their 30s, 40s, because that’s who’s getting sick.”

Because Shelby County is not at the 50% tipping point with U.K. cases, the federal infusion of vaccine offers a rare chance to change the trajectory here, officials say.

“Everybody needs to come out, sign up, show up and get your shot if we want to get through this fourth surge that is on the cusp of starting,” Sweat said.

All people 16 and over are eligible. Besides the public sites run by the City of Memphis at Pipkin, Greater Imani Church, Southwest Tennessee Community College in Whitehaven, Germantown Baptist Church and Appling center, some 20 churches and nonprofits have signed up to cohost smaller events on their properties through May 1.

Your guide to area COVID-19 vaccine sites and schedules

The community sites will have Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson doses. Health officials are letting the partners have a say in which vaccine is given. 

“We know that there’s two schools of thought,” Sweat said. “People would like the one dose to get it done; other people would like the surety of the two dose, which does have a slightly higher efficacy rate.”

While all three vaccines protected against serious disease and hospitalization in clinical trials, in trials done in the U.S., the J & J vaccine offered a 72% protection rate against less serious disease. Both Moderna and Pfizer were higher at 94%-95%.

Appointments for all of the sites are available here. The website also shows which vaccine is being administered at each site.

Health authorities are watching closely to see how changes in the appointment schedule affect uptake. As an example, appointments went faster on Monday and Tuesday when first and second doses were added at Pipkin.

The initial idea was to offer three weeks of the first dose only at Pipkin and then follow with three weeks of second dose.

“So, our idea is that we’re always going to evaluate the data and pivot,” McGowen said. “There are some other levers we can pull about how we run the operation, but for now, we saw the immediate beginnings of an uptick in appointments being filled as soon as we made that pivot so, we’ll continue to do that as we move along.”

As of Tuesday, more than 375,000 people in Shelby County had received at lease one dose of the vaccine.

The push for vaccination comes as the Health Department is steadily isolating and quarantining people who have tested positive for the P.1 variant, a mutation of the virus that appears to be resistant to the vaccine. It can also re-infect people who have already had COVID-19.

New P.1 case tied to travel; authorities hunting source in another

A sixth P.1 case was identified in Shelby County on Sunday. Authorities do not know if it is related to the any of the other five cases, which represent either three or four independent introductions into Shelby County.

“The main thing the community needs to feel comfortable with is that we have a very robust effort underway to detect various strains as they enter the community,” Sweat said.

“Then our public health response is coordinated and rapid enough that we’re able to pretty quickly get those folks in isolation and conduct the contact tracing interviews that need to be done,” he said.

He has not said how many people are in isolation or quarantine with P.1, but last week said everyone had been cooperating with Health Department in quarantining and contact tracing.

Shelby County is the only county in the state and one of few anywhere that has built the capacity to isolate suspicious-looking COVID specimens at the lab level and then quickly sequence their genomes to know if they are variant strains.

A few months ago, all the sequencing was being done at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. In the meantime, commercial labs, including Poplar Healthcare, Compass and AEL, have added rapid sequencing technology, increasing the number of samples that can be analyzed to more than 300 a week.

“Very few places in America have this kind of a partnership with a rapid response. We have to take advantage of this,” McGowen said.

“In Memphis and Shelby County, we are uniquely positioned to kick butt in this pandemic. That’s a technical term if you didn’t know.”


coronavirus Doug McGowen David Sweat Shelby County Health Department UK variant P.1 variant R.1 variant Gracia Szczech FEMA
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.