Governor visits Memphis clinic, field hospital ahead of statewide reopening

Jared Boyd, Daily Memphian

Gov. Bill Lee made a weekend trip to Memphis, with two visits on Saturday, April 25, to healthcare facilities addressing specific needs related to COVID-19 in Shelby County.

Beginning the afternoon at Christ Community Health Services’ Frayser Health Center, Lee met with healthcare professionals, explaining that his visit was an effort to boost enthusiasm around testing, as well as morale among citizens in Tennessee.

“People need hope – particularly when they are afraid, and when there’s the unknown that exists out there like it does with COVID in our state,” Lee said.

“I pray every day that I can give words of hope. We give hope with our actions, but we also give them with our prayer, with our words, and reaching out with our love. And you’re doing that here.”

Parties present for Lee’s brief remarks included Christ Community CEO Shantelle Leatherwood, along with several other representatives of local Safety Net providers, such as Church Health, Cherokee Health Systems, and Memphis Health Center Inc.

Leatherwood said her staff was contacted by the Governor’s office on Tuesday and informed that the Tennessee Department of Health would provide up to 600 tests for community members, if they would be able to stage a drive-thru testing location on Saturday.

“Just this week, Christ Community lost a patient. When you lose a patient to COVID-19, then it spurs you to do more,” Leatherwood told Lee.

“(We are) thinking about why we do what we do, why we’re sometimes just moved to act, and not necessarily thinking all the time about where the resources are going to come from.

“But we care about our communities. It’s the reason why we place health centers in low-income, underserved areas, so that we can actually eliminate barriers and make sure that the needs of our people are met.”

In areas like Frayser, where hundreds of cars lined adjacent roads, winding deep into the neighboring residential areas with people anxious to receive free COVID-19 screening, Lee said he’s focusing efforts to get communities on-board with the process of testing.

Lee said he was pleased to see the droves of vehicles out front of the facility. With 19 concurrent pop-up testing sites throughout the state, he says he hopes other communities respond with a similar turnout.

“We want people to trust this process and to make sure that they go out there and get a test if there’s something that just doesn’t feel right to them,” Lee said.

Outside, Lee took the chance to wave at citizens who drove in for testing, offering a thank you to many to reinforce the notion that testing affects communities, not just individuals and their families.

The scene comes just days before Lee promises the opening of restaurants in 89 counties (excluding Shelby) on Monday, April 27, in 89 counties, across the state. Retail stores will follow soon after on April 29.

With the “Tennessee Pledge,” Lee has announced a plan encouraging safety measures and social distancing in workplaces across the state, in order to reboot the state’s economy.

After leaving Christ Community, Lee toured the former site of The Commercial Appeal on Union Avenue as crews from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers convert the building into a 400-bed hospital. There, he addressed the pledge’s purpose, timing and feasibility.

“It’s a way for businesses to pledge to their customers that they are going to operate in a way that provides the utmost safety for people who come, and (it’s) a pledge to their employees,” Lee said.

“I think we’re going to create a safe environment across our state. That’s our goal. That includes social distancing at its core. That’s the only way we can begin to get the economy moving again.”

When asked if he’d feel safe visiting a restaurant upon their reopening on April 27, Lee said he would.

“One of the things that I want to do is make certain that these businesses are operating safely,” Lee said. “And I will be out and about to witness that and encourage good habits.”

Lee added that state health officials have used data to manage the opening of establishments in 89 counties, namely the rate of positive cases as it relates to the number of tests administered.

“We’ve watched that positivity rate slowly decline, over the last few weeks. Those data points, along with several others are a part of what gave us the confidence that we could protect the public safely,” Lee said.

The hospital center in the former Commercial Appeal building is scheduled to be ready by mid-May. However, Lee and hospital faculty maintain that the facility may never be used. The hospital is being built with the intention of being an extra care center in the event regional hospitals reach capacity during the peak of COVID-19.

Dr. J. Richard Walker, chief of the Emergency Medicine Residency at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, will serve as the CEO of the hospital.

He says the facility is designed specifically to meet the needs of a potential capacity-stretching surge in cases. Inside, doctors will be able to treat patients who are well enough to be discharged from traditional hospitals in the area, but still need supportive care like oxygen and fluids.

In the case that a patient deteriorates rapidly from effects of the virus, patients can be treated at the site until they are able to be relocated to a traditional hospital.

“I’d be happy to be in charge of the hospital that never had a patient,” Walker said, adding that the facility is prepared to open and close completely in response to the virus’ toll on the local area.

Walker says with many unknowns about whether seasons may have any affect on the spread of COVID-19, planning conversations have considered the outlook of a hospital that could reopen months after an initial closure.

“I think it’s safe to say everyone knows this could do any number of things. This virus hasn’t cooperated with our understanding of viruses,” Walker said.

No matter if the virus is constant or appears in cycles, Walker adds that the hospital’s current commitment is to prepare for up to two years of service, if necessary.

“If the mission extends beyond that, that’s okay, too,” he said.

In the meantime, a crew of around 500 Corps members are working to accomplish what Walker characterized as “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”

“They’ve essentially committed to do a year’s worth of work in 28 days,” Walker said.

“They appear to be getting about two weeks of work every day. They’ve massively transformed it, in just the time that we’ve been working, from really a hollowed-out shell that was a prior newspaper manufacturing plant to a facility that we’re going to be proud to have in the Memphis area.”

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