UTHSC health expert answers questions about coronavirus as states reopen economy

Health experts discuss coronavirus pandemic as states reopen economy

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis businesses will not reopen on May 1, even as other employees across the state start returning to work. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland extended his safer-at-home order until May 5.

WhileTennessee Governor Bill Lee moves forward with reopening businesses in 89 rural counties, big cities like Memphis aren’t there yet. Medical experts say the coronavirus data shows it’s not safe.

“We’re going to be cautious,” said Dr. Jon McCullers, an infectious disease expert from UT Health Science Center and Pediatrician-in-Chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. “We’re not going to open early. We’re not going to be rushed into this.”

Dr. McCullers says Memphis simply doesn't have the COVID-19 testing capacity needed to reopen at this point.

Tennessee safer-at-home order to end April 30

“I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” he told WMC Action News 5 on Tuesday. “I do think we’ll be there in the next two or three weeks with the plans we’ve been putting into motion this past week.”

McCullers is a member of the recovery task force set up by Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. Both mayors say any return to normalcy for this region will be calculated and carefully planned with mayors of Memphis’ suburbs and leaders of other cities including Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

Reopening rural counties in Tennessee

“We have more cases and we’re more congested than these small counties, said Strickland. "Therefore, it’s going to be sometime after May 1 for us.”

Harris released a statement: “We are working collaboratively with the health department and will use data to drive decisions about restarting our economy.”

McCullers says in order for people to safely return to work and for customers to stay virus-free, Shelby County must have plenty of coronavirus tests available. Hospitals must be well-equipped with ICU beds, ventilators and PPE for the staff. And the Shelby County Health Department must be able to perform contact tracing on those who test positive and isolate those who are awaiting test results.

He did say there are signs of progress.

"We've really seen the cases in hospitals go down over the last couple weeks,” he said, “so from that standpoint, I think we're in good shape."

When the task force sees a downward trend in overall cases, McCullers said, and the county has the capacity to test in large numbers, then the reopening plan begins in phases.

"It isn’t going to be like turning on the spigot and opening everything up,” he said. “It will be slow. It will be measured. We'll monitor each step before we go on to the next."

Shelby County’s first confirmed case was on March 8. As of April 21, there are more than 1857 confirmed cases, with 39 deaths being reported.

The health department says nearly 20,000 tests have been conducted in a county with a population just under a million. A dozen test sites around the county now have the ability to test more than 5,000 people a day.

More testing locations are expected to open in the coming weeks, including satellite locations for the Tiger Lane drive-thru testing site operated by UTHSC.

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