Health Officials: Decisive Impact of Coronavirus Shutdowns Still Weeks Away

Mar 24, 2020


Signs announcing closures blanket Shelby County.
Credit Katie Riordan

The Shelby County Health Department expects the number of COVID-19 cases to double every 5-7 days in the near-term, as stay-at-home orders begin to take effect countywide.

As of Wednesday morning, the county’s local count of cases was 170, while Tennessee nears 700 across the state.

An aggressive clamp down on activities that spread the virus—namely social gatherings and employees going to work with symptoms—will require a prolonged timeline to reverse the upward trajectory of new infections. 

“You’re talking at least...four weeks to eight weeks before we begin to see that particular efforts around staying at home or safer at home are going to have impacts,” said Health Department director Alisa Haushalter. “My personal opinion is that it would be difficult to return to normal within two weeks.”

Two weeks is roughly the timeframe President Trump has suggested is reasonable to begin loosening restrictions nationwide to help the country’s ailing economy. 

Many state and local officials across the country are scoffing at the idea.

The Health Department has now formalized its support for orders from the City of Memphis and surrounding municipalities that restrict the movement of residents countywide. A mandate from the department—issued Tuesday—directs only “essential personnel” to travel to work.

According to a study recently presented to local health officials and reported on by the Commercial Appeal, a best-case scenario for the Memphis metro area in which people adhere to regulations, would lead to about 13,000 infections and 70 deaths.

Disregarding the shutdown’s regulations could push Shelby County’s death toll into the thousands.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Haushalter would not address these estimates specifically, but said numbers are based on the size of local at-risk populations, including the elderly and those with chronic conditions.

“That's the worst case scenario,” she said. “It’s really intended to prepare us for assisting hospitals in the event they need additional assistance.”

Governor Bill Lee said Tuesday afternoon that he is evaluating data from various areas of the state to determine whether a statewide shutdown is necessary.

Thousands of doctors have urged him to take action. So far, there have been two virus-related deaths in Tennessee.