Shelby County health officials consider overflow COVID-19 facility amid rising new cases

Shelby County health officials consider overflow COVID-19 facility amid rising new cases
Shelby County health officials consider overflow COVID-19 facility

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Hospitalizations in Shelby County just in the month of October have made some doctors change course in their thinking about the sitting alternate care site Downtown. Earlier this month, they felt it may never have to be used during this pandemic. Now, they said it could happen in a matter of weeks or months.

Being a novel virus, COVID-19 has been hard to project according to the leader of this alternate care facility Dr. Richard Walker. He said this is a time where people can either change personal habits to curb the growing number of cases or hospitals will run out of room.

Alternative care site could be activated sooner than projected

“The goal is pretty much to never get to the point where we need it,” Dr. Walker said. “At that point, we’d call it a single point failure and past that, there are no other options.”

Dr. Walker with UT Health Sciences heads up the alternate care facility on Union Avenue. Right now it sits empty, but as he sees more hospitalizations, he doesn’t know how much longer that will be.

“We were at 57 inpatients at the beginning of October,” Chief Medical Officer of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare Cassandra Howard said. “In less than a month, the number of patients have more than doubled.”

“As little as a month ago, we thought for sure we would not be using the alternate care site,” Dr. Walker said.

UT Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Jon McCullers told WMC Action News 5 Wednesday at this projection, the site may open in four to six weeks. Dr. Walker said if trends don’t change there is a likelihood it would open sometime this winter.

If it did, it would be the state’s call. UT Health Sciences would take leadership of it under Dr. Walker, and the state health department would staff it. Staffing remains a concern even now in working hospitals as they make surge plans.

“We have enough supplies. We have enough beds. Our biggest concern is manpower,” St. Francis Hospital Chief Nursing Officer Jennifer Chiusano said.

“In the wintertime, it’s going to be difficult with the whole country dealing with it again because we can’t rely on other states for resources such as personnel,” Dr. Walker said.

If this site does open, it would be for moderate care patients to open up beds in hospitals for acute care patients.

City officials said before this site is ever opened, the first option is to change the community’s habits to stop transmission growth, then active surge in place plans at hospitals, and if all that fails, that’s when this site will be opened.

The Shelby County Health Department interviewed 704 people who had COVID-19 to get a better picture of the trends and habits of patients.

Data shows 78 percent of patients have COVID-19 symptoms, and 63 percent still went out in public.

“There are people out and about engaged in their normal activities of life, regardless of if they have symptoms or not,” David Sweat with the Shelby County Health Department said. “These are all symptomatic individuals.”

The Shelby County joint COVID-19 Task Force held its second press briefing of the week as cases and hospitalizations continue to surge. Seven day case totals are rising. On average, more than 200 cases are reported. Between Wednesday and Thursday, there were 188.

As part of those interviews, health officials say healthcare workers, k-12 or childcare workers, and factory workers were all over represented.

“Meaning the people who work at those locations are perhaps at greater risk,” Sweat said.

Of the more than 37,000 COVID-19 cases in Shelby County since March, 35 percent of the patients have been 18-34 years old. But 88 percent of the deaths are in patients older than 55.

It’s something emergency room doctors continue to see firsthand.

“All the older folks I’m seeing are universally telling me the same thing and that is I have it, I know it’s COVID because last week my niece or nephew or son or daughter or insert young family member here had it,” Dr. Walker said.

Health officials said they want to change individual habits in regards to the pandemic before implementing any business restrictions. They said a lot of transmission is happening in intimate, small, family gatherings. So, even when you’re around loved ones in their homes wear a mask and remain six feet apart.

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