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COVID-19 UPDATE: Meharry’s drug research, rising numbers and a testing appeal

Meharry Medical College is on the verge of producing innovative, game-changing therapeutic drugs that could stem the tide of COVID-19’s rampant spread, according to the college’s researcher-in-chief.

Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, president and CEO of the largest private, historically black healthcare institution, said Meharry is among those research colleges and universities leading in the race to discover medical breakthroughs to fight COVID-19.

“We are developing therapeutic drugs which will block the replication of the virus,” said Hildreth. “Also, one of our surgeons is developing a novel ventilator to deal with the shortage of ventilators.”

With a national COVID-19 death toll exceeding 219,000, Meharry’s developments is welcome news as a second wave of infections surges across the nation.

Although Hildreth declined to say when exactly the treatments would be available for public use, they are expected to be accessible before a safe and effective virus vaccine is ready.

In a COVID-19 update for the Nashville-Davidson County metro area, Hildreth warned that a study conducted by the University of Florida proves that the coronavirus is not only airborne, but particles of the virus can remain on a surface over the course of an entire day.

“Four out of five infected people are infected by those who have no symptoms, and the virus can stay on a surface for a day,” Hildreth said. “That is why wearing masks in public, washing hands frequently and social distancing are so important.”

Shelby County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Bruce Randolph again touted the same measures to combat the rising numbers of new COVID-19 cases in Shelby County. Monday’s positives totaled 347 reported from tests administered from Oct. 7-10.

With recent local COVID-19 numbers moving upward, Shelby County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Bruce Randolph again stressed the need for complying with Health Department directives, including the wearing of masks and social distancing six feet or more. (Courtesy photo)

The Health Department Wednesday (Oct. 14) morning reported 144 new cases of the novel coronavirus. That brings the cumulative total of COVID-19 cases in the county to 33,625. Also Wednesday, the Health Department reported two new COVID-19 related deaths; 539 people in Shelby County have died from complications caused by the virus.

“We’re getting calls all the time that limited-service restaurants and other establishments are not complying with the directives for everyone to wear masks in public and social distance six feet,” Randolph said. “It is little wonder that new cases are rising.”

Meharry’s Hildreth warned that moving into this winter’s surge of new cases, it is unsafe to send children back to school at this time as districts throughout the state look at allowing children to return to in-person classes. Lack of ventilation in closed spaces, such as schools and churches, can be dangerous, he said.

“It is now beyond dispute that children can be infected, will be infected, some of them will get sick, and unfortunately, as we know, some of them will also die,” Hildreth said in last week’s update.

The Shelby County Health Department has come under fire for issuing Health Directive 14, which recommends masking and social distancing for schools, rather than mandating those measures.

Randolph said Health Department officials cannot impose those mandates on schools. Administrators can choose to adopt those actions as “best practices” for a safe return to the classroom. However, if a school experiences an outbreak, it will be subject to closure, just like any other establishment.

“School officials have the authority to set policy – to accept or reject our best practice recommendations,” said Randolph. “But if there is an outbreak, we will make sure the case is isolated and contacts are quarantined as well. We reserve that authority to step in and close that school if the outbreak is not contained.”

Shelby County Schools opened this fall in a completely virtual format. Davidson County students began the academic year with a hybrid plan using both in-person and virtual-learning models.

Hildreth raised eyebrows last week when he said that lawmakers are “the least qualified to determine when students should return to the classroom.”

Upward-bound numbers show Tennessee confirming more than 215,000 coronavirus cases. Davidson County’s total is approaching 31,000, with 322 deaths, and Shelby County has logged nearly 34,000 cases, with 540 deaths.

More testing needed

While new COVID-19 cases are rising, Dr. Reginique Green, chairperson of medicine for Christ Community Health Services, said there may be a more dramatic increase in coming days.

Suited to deal with the pandemic environment, Dr. Reginique Green with Christ Community Health Services said more testing for the virus is needed at time when the numbers of those getting testing has shown a decline. (Courtesy photo)

“What we have seen is the percentage of tests coming back positive is up, but testing is down,” Green said. “We need more testing, and Christ Community has opened Saturday testing now.”

Green said Shelby County needs higher testing numbers, especially among those who work in high-contact jobs, particularly identified as essential. Tests are free of charge, and Christ Community is seeking to remove every obstacle to COVID-19 testing.

“I believe there are a number of reasons why testing is down,” said Green. “People are just COVID-fatigued, mixed messages are coming from the top, and they are trying to figure out how to transition and just live with COVID-19. But more testing is needed because the numbers are rising.”

Green said the clinics are armed with rapid COVID-19 and rapid flu tests. People may just be coming in sicker this year, having contracted them both.

“Flu season begins at the end of December and the first of January,” Green said. “Two people have already been diagnosed in the U.S. with having both COVID-19 and the flu. That is an even more dire situation for vulnerable populations, but we are getting prepared.”

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