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When Hospitals Get Full, Memphis Shopping Center Will Become COVID Ward

Katie Riordan
Credit Katie Riordan

 Listen to an audio version of the story.

Officials in Memphis predict the coming surge of COVID-19 cases could overwhelm the local healthcare system within the next three weeks, requiring an additional 1,000 hospital beds to manage an overflow of patients. 

In response, the Army Corps of Engineers will begin turning the Gateway Shopping Center in north Memphis into a temporary medical facility to meet some of that need. The center will take non-acute patients to free-up area hospitals to treat the most severe coronavirus cases.

The city is also looking at other sites to house additional beds.

The number of infections in the state balloon each day—almost 3,000 as of Thursday afternoon, with about a fifth concentrated in Shelby County.

Health officials expect the number of hospitalizations to peak in about three weeks, at which point the state could need two times as many beds and three times as many ICU beds than are currently available.

The White House said this week that at least 100,000 people in the U.S could die from the first wave of the virus. According to Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease advisor to the city of Memphis, Shelby County could see anywhere between 1,200 and 2,500 deaths.

Though, he says it's not too late to reduce the number of predicted deaths by staying at home and away from others.

“What we do today will be impacted two weeks from now,” he said during a briefing Thursday afternoon. “The infections happen today, then they turn into an ICU admission or an illness which requires more care two to three weeks down the line.”

The city says currently there is no shortage of hospital equipment—such as beds, masks and ventilators—to deal with the current volume of patients in Memphis-Metro area hospitals.

“That should not cause anyone to have a false sense of security,” Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen said at the same briefing as Jain. “We’re in good shape...when I say good shape, I don’t mean we have months of supplies, but for the next five days to a week, we are in good shape while we await the next shipment to come in.”

McGowen says the state recently received 550 additional ventilators and anticipates that a federal push to manufacture more could help.

“We will get what is apportioned to us, and we are hopeful that by the time our peak hits, we don’t have to make some of the decisions other communities have had to make,” he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, seven people in Shelby County had died from complications related to COVID-19.

Both Jain and McGowen said the city’s fate is not sealed, and appealed to people’s willingness to make social sacrifices.

“It is us, we, who can dictate how high that peak will be as well as the duration of that peak,” Jain said. “The virus is feeding on our social interactions...if you stop that interaction for a period of 14 days or more, you starve the virus.” 

Copyright 2020 WKNO

Katie joined the WKNO team in 2019. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org