Governor says Memphis shopping center will be retrofitted as COVID-19 hospital

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday a shopping center in Memphis will be used as a COVID-19 alternative treatment center for non-acute patients.

The Army Corps reserves will be in charge of retrofitting the Gateway Shopping Center on Jackson Avenue for patients. This site is phase one — Memphis leaders say there will be two more sites.

Lee said the projected date that the state expects a surge in patients will peak around April 21, although the exact date is unknown.

The city of Memphis said Thursday it is still scouting sites for alternative treatment facilities it will build to handle COVID-19 patients as the number of patients rises, the city’s COO said.

The Memphis area has enough ventilators, hospital beds and ICU units today, but if the number of COVID-19 patients goes up dramatically, that could change, Doug McGowen said Thursday.

“We know that there’s a wave coming and that is what we’re all preparing for today. But we’re in good shape for now,” McGowen said. “Right now we can handle what we have, but in the next few days we’ll have to reassess that.”

There were 638 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County, the health department reported Thursday morning, an increase of about 140 cases since the day before.

Because of the increase in cases, local leaders are looking at creating a facility that could handle possible overflow from hospitals, if needed.

McGowen said the city needs at least 1,000 additional hospital beds. That might be under one roof, or in separate locations.

City representatives are looking at arenas, warehouses and vacant retail spaces as possible locations for an alternative treatment center if there is overflow from hospitals.

FedEx Forum has been considered but its floor space is not quite large enough for the city’s needs, and the city’s convention center is currently under renovation and is not available, McGowen said.

“Were hopeful that by the time our peak hits we don’t have to make the decisions that some other communities have had to make,” McGowen said.

During Thursday’s virtual press conference, WREG’s Stacy Jacobson asked McGowen how they plan to get so many ventilators when everyone else needs them too.

He mentioned producers like General Motors and says Tennessee is about to get a shipment of 550. He expects Memphis to get some of those, but he didn’t say how they’ll get more than that.

The vast size of Memphis and the number of roads into and out of the city makes closing off the city at its borders impractical, McGowen said. Traffic at the Memphis airport has dropped dramatically on its own, so closure of that facility would not be necessary.

Once the first peak is over, it doesn’t mean the virus is gone, he said. Restrictions on businesses and travel outside the home will be lifted one by one as conditions allow.

Dr. Manoj Jain, another member of the city’s COVID-19 task force, said the single most important thing the community can do to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed is to continue social distancing, not interacting with people outside their home.

“When we social-distance, what we do is we starve the virus,” Jain said.

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