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When will safer-at-home order end? Hard to say. Lots of Memphians on road despite social distance rules

Just when Memphis might lift the shelter-in-place order still isn't clear, according to the physician advising city officials about the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis earlier barred unessential travel in the city in March, an order that Dr. Manoj Jain said might have to stand until after new coronavirus infections begin to decline in number each week.

Jain, an expert in infectious disease, said it is not certain when that decline might begin in large part because it appears that Memphis-area residents have not rigorously used social distance techniques recommended to stop the virus from spreading.

“It’s going to come down to the individual’s response. There’s a community-wide response,” he said, referring to shelter-in-place orders. “But the individual response has to be taken seriously.’’

Health officials have reported more than 1,200 residents have caught the virus in the nine-county metro area, including 845 residents of Memphis and Shelby County.

With the number of cases still rising, Jain said he couldn’t predict whether the shelter-in-place order might be able to come down at the end of April or in May. 

"Honestly, it's hard to tell," Jain said. 

Mid-South governors and mayors have recommended or enacted travel restrictions and stay-home policies for employees in businesses considered not essential. Grocers, manufacturers, hospitals, drug stores, logistics firms and similar companies are considered essential.

On Monday, Jain suggested optimism in an initial report about a study by University of Washington researchers. The study revised an earlier, gloomier assessment and suggested Tennessee’s number of new coronavirus cases statewide might peak in mid April and then decline in number each week.


On Tuesday, Jain said after he reviewed the research he doubted the study could predict the outcome for Memphis. The study assumes full social distance techniques are adopted in the community, he said.

“We need to really look at that assumption in Memphis,” Jain said. “We know we’re not getting the full response (to social distance measures) by everyone.”

Jain noted Shelby County’s relatively low social distance score. Latest Memphis News The grade is reported on the Unacast website that tries to track unessential travel in each U.S. county.


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Using a scale of A is best and F is worst, Shelby County was graded C- by Unacast on April 3. Unessential travel had ticked higher since March 31. Among the eight other metro-area counties, each graded D- or F except Tunica County, which scored A-.

Unacast uses Italy’s example as the benchmark for safe social distance practices in the United States. Unessential travel fell 70% to 80% in Italy when the pandemic hit.



Shelby County unessential travel fell 60% to 65%, Unacast reports. While the grade for Shelby County has improved from an earlier D, the score trails large counties in metro Nashville, where, for example, Davidson and Williamson counties each were graded A- by Unacast.

The Washington study also drew skepticism Tuesday from Doug McGowen, chief operating officer for the City of Memphis. He noted the wide variance between the original projection and the projection released this week.

“The thing that keeps me up about that model is that people will believe that this is not as serious as it was originally forecast. The model that was presented yesterday assumed that 100 percent compliance with social-distancing through the end of May,”  McGowen said, “ We all know that that is not occurring today, so that is the basis for us to reexamine that.”


Doctors and nurses are concerned about the number of coronavirus cases peaking at a high number. They hope to avoid filling all the hospital beds at one time with patients who catch the COVID-19 infection from the coronavirus. Orders to shelter-in-place and avoid unessential travel are intended to keep the number of COVID-19 infections from rapidly spiking.

Memphis hospitals presently are not close to being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, Jain said. Nine main hospitals contain about 4,000 beds. As a general rule, Jain said, about 10% of the people who are infected by the virus require hospitalization.

"We know that there is a surge coming and we have to prepare for that. Press Release Distribution Service Irrespective of the height of the peak, irrespective of the duration of the peak, we are preparing our health care systems to be responsive to the best of our ability," McGowen said.  

Memphis' medical hub serves about 2 million people living in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.

"Social distancing will not only flatten the curve, but stretch it out,'' McGowen said, referring to a line on a chart showing the rate of increase in COVID-19 infections. "So the extent with which we comply with that will tell us how high the peak will be and also how long the peak will be.”

 Because the University of Washington study revised a gloomier assessment by researchers, it was seen as a positive sign for Tennessee and Memphis. However, Jain said it isn’t clear when the number of new cases in the Memphis area will begin to decline in number.

“We just have to take it with a grain of salt,’’ Jain said of the Washington study. “I would not at any point believe we are out of the woods.”

According to Unacast, these were the grades on unessential travel for the nine counties that make up metropolitan Memphis:

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