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Highlighting the massive expansion of the Shelby County Health Department

by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris — 

Right now, Shelby County is making a significant investment to protect our public health. Two weeks ago, the County Commission approved our request to add 141 new positions in the Shelby County Health Department, new positions that will be singularly devoted to confronting COVID-19 in Shelby County. The new positions are financed by federal resources received through the CARES Act.

I want to give you a few highlights of this massive Health Department expansion.

First, we are developing strike teams to focus on the needs of vulnerable populations, including seniors, nursing home residents, detainees, and others.

Second, we are in the process of hiring four additional epidemiologists. Our “epi-team” is principally responsible for the data analysis that we have come to rely on over these last several weeks. Every day, our Health Department releases data by ZIP code, age, race, gender, number of confirmed positive cases – overall and by day – and negative cases. This data drives action.

Preliminary data reported on race may indicate the novel coronavirus is heavily impacting minorities in our community. For example, our data so far shows that 66 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in Shelby County have been African-American residents. The additional capabilities will allow us to investigate and address the troubling racial disparity in COVID-19 cases in our county. This part of the plan represents a near doubling of our data analysis capabilities.

Third, we are expanding our ability to collaborate with external partners, including the media, to disseminate regular and reliable information. This allows us to utilize traditional media and social media to get our message out about the various roles each of us play in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in Shelby County.

Fourth, we are recruiting dozens and dozens of contact tracers and related support staff. As you know, we have a large contingency of staff working on contact tracing right now. We have dozens of employees on loan from the City of Memphis, dozens of employees on loan from other responsibilities within the Health Department, and many volunteers to whom we are grateful.

So far, our contact tracing operation has been able to close out about 80 percent of investigations. Our efforts are exceptional, but the current situation is not sustainable, as some of the staff will eventually have to return to their normal duties. This expansion will give us the ability to continue to run a massive contact tracing operation as new cases emerge.

Fifth, we will see a significant expansion of our ability to manage compliance issues with the various health directives. This will allow us to expand our capacity to educate and provide technical assistance to organizations trying to figure out how to create safe environments with sufficient social distance. We will be able to offer training to team members and volunteers to support organizations in creating safe environments.

Sixth, we are creating a Testing Team that manages COVID-19 testing out of the Health Department. This is a new function of the Health Department that will also help advise external partners on testing. As mentioned, for the most part, this expansion will be financed by federal dollars.

It is important to note that most of these positions will only exist while we have federal funding to pay for them. Nevertheless, this represents a tremendous expansion of our Health Department’s capabilities. I believe this expansion is justifiable in light of the advent of COVID-19 and the danger this disease poses to our public health.

The expansion approved by the Commission included an initial investment of $6.4 million out of the federal dollars. The total cost of the Health Department expansion will be approximately $11.4 million.

This is a collaborative effort. Just a few days after the Commission approved the expansion, the Memphis City Council unanimously voted to kick in $2.7 million of City of Memphis CARES Act funding to increase the Health Department’s capacity to hire, train, and deploy staff to conduct COVID-19 testing. We are grateful for their partnership in addressing this public health emergency.

This massive expansion of the Shelby County Health Department will give us the tools to help slow the spread and protect our community’s public health.

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