Feds Converge on Memphis Due to 'Dramatic' Virus Increases

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Dr. Jonathan Mermin, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, speaks during Thursday's Memphis and Shelby County Joint Task Force briefing. - CITY OF MEMPHIS/FACEBOOK
  • City of Memphis/Facebook
  • Dr. Jonathan Mermin, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, speaks during Thursday's Memphis and Shelby County Joint Task Force briefing.

Federal health officials have been in Shelby County to offer assistance as a part of a tour to the country’s top 10 locations seeing “dramatic” numbers of new coronavirus cases.

Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention and a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, said he and others came here as federal officials saw a “dramatic increase” in Shelby County and other locations in the country. Officials also came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

Here, those teams gave technical support and expertise to local officials for a more effective response to an ever-growing number of COVID-19 cases. Total cases for Shelby County topped 10,000 earlier this week, and new case rates here have been over 300 for the past few days.

Mermin said federal health officials “are concerned” about the rise of virus cases here, especially the disproportionate rise of cases in minority communities.

“Memphis has come together before and beaten even bigger odds,” Mermin said. “We can do it again.”



Memphians will get that chance this weekend. Local officials have said they knew holidays like Mother’s Day and Memorial Day would lead to spikes of new cases. They were concerned Thursday about the upcoming Independence Day holiday weekend.

Doug McGowen, Chief Operating Officer for the city of Memphis, urged locals to take safety precautions during celebrations. In this request, he noted it was the work of ordinary Memphians that beat back the yellow fever epidemic that “nearly wiped out the city” 150 years ago.

“I’m asking you; I’m imploring you,” McGowen said. “Let’s show the world that grit and grind is not just a slogan, it’s who we are. Let’s have the grit to wear face masks and grind (the virus) out in small groups, not large groups.”
Greg Akers, editor of the Memphis Business Journal, asked McGowen if the high numbers of new cases were because the phasing of the Back to Business plan was too lenient or if it was because individuals were becoming lax on safety precautions. McGowen said “neither one of those is right.”

He described an early approach to virus-related clamp-downs and phased reopenings that were patient and thoughtful. He said local officials expected to see upticks in the average of new cases in Phase I (about 100) and in Phase II (about 200). He said the county has averaged about 200 daily new cases of the virus over the last two weeks.

However, there are some increases “we can’t explain.” Clusters appear and sometimes it can be explained because some live in houses with many people or people attend gatherings with many people. But now, he said, officials here have a better ability to look at data and target approaches for effective interventions.

On the whole, though, “the pacing of the reopening was right,” McGowen said.

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