UTHSC experts: Coronavirus likely to infect 30% of us

By  and , Guest Columnist Updated: March 16, 2020 10:17 AM CT | Published: March 13, 2020 4:05 AM CT
Scott Strome
Guest Columnist

Scott Strome

Dr. Scott Strome is the Robert Kaplan Executive Dean of the College of Medicine and vice chancellor for clinical affairs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Jon McCullers
Guest Columnist

Jon McCullers

Dr. Jon McCullers is the senior associate dean for clinical affairs for the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and pediatrician in chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

Editor’s note: Due to the serious public health implications associated with COVID-19, The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed.

On Wednesday, the president announced unprecedented steps intended to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, including restrictions on travel between Europe and the United States.

The National Basketball Association suspended its season, and the NCAA announced that all games would be played without fans, then canceled. The University of Tennessee followed the actions of other universities around the nation, with a notice of suspension of in-person classes, a move that includes the University of Tennessee Health Science Center here in Memphis.

Coronavirus: What would a pandemic mean for Memphis?

What prompted these actions? The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, signaling that spread throughout the world had occurred, and travel restrictions and other measures will not prevent it from infecting a large portion of the population.

This virus spreads easily from person to person, is unlikely to be materially slowed by the upcoming warmer weather and has an accelerating epidemic curve in the United States. It is likely to infect 30% to 40% of the population over the next two years.

<strong>Jon McCullers</strong>

Jon McCullers

We expect spread of the virus to occur in patches during the early parts of the pandemic, with some communities hard hit and others spared. Eventually, however, in the absence of a vaccine, it will extend its reach throughout the country, and herd immunity will start to provide some protection from explosive spread.

What impact will these stringent measures have on the pandemic? The virus is already widespread in the United States, so travel bans and school closures will not stop the virus or prevent individuals from eventually being infected.

Some of the reaction is due to social pressure in the face of the unknown and to address the concerns of the populations impacted. If students won’t attend classes out of fear of the virus, then alternate measures like online learning need to be adopted.

The most reasonable argument for social distancing and cancellation of mass gatherings is not to provide personal individual protection, but to prevent a surge in severe cases that might overwhelm the health systems in the region — something referred to as “flattening the curve.”

<strong>Dean Strome</strong>

Dean Strome

If the mortality rate from COVID-19 is around 0.5%, thousands of Memphians will require intensive care and a substantial fraction of those will die. Our health system cannot handle that many severe cases all at once, but will be able to cope, likely reducing this number of deaths, if it is spread out somewhat evenly over the next couple of years.

This will also allow us more time and resources to help those likely to be at highest risk — the elderly, pregnant women and the immunocompromised, as well as to develop vaccines and therapeutics that may effectively prevent and/or treat this disease.

At the UTHSC College of Medicine, we are always cognizant of how our decisions and societal events impact our communities, beyond the health care system and the numbers of infections and deaths. The social distancing measures put in place are likely to have an outsized influence on the service industry and other consumer-facing and hourly workers.

The poor and underserved in our community are more likely to have limited or no paid sick leave, fewer resources for child care and home meals without schools in session, and no financial reserves for such a crisis. We anticipate that this situation will be dramatically exacerbated by the closure of public school systems, forcing parents to leave work to watch their children, potentially eliminating their income streams, and also eliminating the potential for school lunch.

The large pool of uninsured and underinsured combined with the constrained support of public health institutions only serves to amplify the problem. We may be blunting the impact of the pandemic on our health care system, while at the same time creating new and more significant problems for the economic health of our community — problems that will likely leave an indelible imprint on our society.

What can we do? In the short term, and perhaps most importantly, we must petition employers to ensure the salaries of employees during this crisis — not allowing a virus to attack our homes, our ability to care for loved ones and our collective ability to put food on the table.

UTHSC will continue to provide information and expert opinions through our website uthsc.edu/coronavirus, as well as through the media and as advisers when requested. Knowledge is the best counter to fear.

We can all do our part to practice good hand hygiene and social distancing to reduce the impact on our health system. We can continue to support our local restaurants, nail salons and bike shops while maintaining needed precautions to minimize the risk of contracting the virus. And we can support our local neighborhoods, particularly helping elderly neighbors and others at risk by reaching out and creating plans for assistance when they are needed.

In the long term, we must recognize that these diseases are cyclic, and create and fund preparatory efforts, such as stockpiling of personal protective equipment, development of plans for more effective patient screening, and improving the supply chain for test kits and therapeutics.

Furthermore, even if this pandemic fades out without the development of a vaccine, we must persist in vaccine development after the threat is eliminated, so we can be better prepared for similar infections.

This is likely to be a difficult time ahead of us, but we will persevere and optimistically emerge better equipped to handle the next public health crisis.


Dr. Jon McCullers Dr. Dean Strome COVID-19 Coronavirus in Tennessee University of Tennessee Health Science Center


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