guest column

The kids at St. Jude need you to wear a mask

By , Guest Columnist Updated: July 22, 2020 11:03 AM CT | Published: July 21, 2020 1:18 PM CT
James R. Downing
Guest Columnist

James R. Downing

Dr. James R. Downing is president and CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. He leads an $11.5 billion commitment to accelerate progress in the research and treatment of pediatric cancer and other catastrophic diseases by expanding St. Jude clinical care and scientific programs in Memphis and around the globe.

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, life across the country and around the world transformed nearly overnight. At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, we moved quickly to protect the health and safety of our employees, families, and the most vulnerable members of our community – our patients.

During the past four months, we have created one of the safest harbors against COVID-19 in the nation. Protection measures include a first-of-its-kind COVID-19 testing program for employees, patients and families; campus zoning; reduced personnel and visitor access; and heightened infection-control procedures. We need your help to ensure that this haven remains as secure as possible.

My request is simple: Please wear a mask whenever you are in public. In doing so, you can help save children fighting cancer and other deadly diseases.

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Every day, I examine COVID-19 data in the region and across the country. Not long ago, the reports were encouraging. The number of new cases was decreasing, and parts of the country were reopening.

Now, I look at the numbers with a feeling of dread. In only a few weeks, the trends have reversed. The number of newly infected individuals is on the rise, as is the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19. As a result, the city, county and organizations throughout the Mid-South are pausing or altering phased reopening plans. There are now more than 16,000 confirmed cases in Shelby County. This only accounts for those who have been tested. The total is likely far greater.

The chance of getting infected has never been higher. You can assume for every 100 people you encounter – at the grocery store, in a restaurant, at a park or in other public spaces – at least one is infected with the novel coronavirus. Alarmingly, between 40%–60% of transmissions occur from those who have not yet developed symptoms.

Without a vaccine, the only way we can slow the spread of the virus is by wearing a mask in public and adhering to 6-foot physical distancing recommendations. These precautions are proven to work.

During the pandemic, you play a role in protecting patients at St. Jude. Our doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, scientists and support staff – nearly 5,000 strong – live in your community. By wearing a mask, you help protect them from contracting the virus – and as a result, they can continue to do their lifesaving work. Our staff know all too well that cancer and other deadly illnesses don’t stop, even in the midst of a pandemic. As the mother of a St. Jude patient told me, “Wearing a mask is an act of kindness.”

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Earlier this month, the City of Memphis passed an ordinance requiring people to wear face coverings or masks while in businesses and public places. We applaud our local leaders for taking this step. However, for this to slow the virus’ spread, everyone needs to follow the ordinance.

Hospital founder Danny Thomas once said, “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.”

For more than half a century, the residents of Memphis and Shelby County have helped us honor Thomas’ vision. Now, during these precarious times, we are thankful to our neighbors who stand tall – safeguarding St. Jude children and staff by always wearing masks in public. 


St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Dr. James Downing COVID-19 face coverings


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