Leaders from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and its clinical and community partners said at a late February press conference they will share information about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) with the media as a way to reassure the public that steps are being taken to prepare for and combat any possible spread of the illness.

UTHSC

“At UTHSC we really believe we have a responsibility to care for the health of all the citizens in the state of Tennessee, and we are particularly invested in the health of the community in Memphis and the Mid-South,” said Jon McCullers, M.D., senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs for the College of Medicine at UTHSC.

“We thought it was important to come and talk about the local response and what UTHSC’s role will be in the local response,” he said.

UTHSC is taking the lead as Tennessee’s public academic health care institution and the trainer and employer of the majority of health care workers in the city and state. “When and if the virus comes here, that’s who will be taking care of people.”

McCullers was joined by Martin Croce, M.D., professor of surgery at UTHSC and chief medical officer at Regional One Health; Nick Hysmith, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases at UTHSC and medical director of infection prevention at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital: and Alisa Haushalter, D.N.P., R.N., director of the Shelby County Health Department and an associate professor of Advance Practice and Doctoral Studies in the UTHSC College of Nursing.

McCullers, also pediatrician in chief at Le Bonheur, said the university is working with its partners on preparation and contributing to research to better understand Coronavirus, its progression, and possibly play a role in a cure.

Haushalter said the Shelby County Public Health Department’s role is complementary to the clinical health care role. She said the department is in constant contact with the Tennessee Department of Health and carefully following reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Coronavirus is a threat, but it’s not an immediate threat here,” she said. Currently, her department remains in the midst of influenza (flu) season, and that also demands focus. COVID-19 has a lower fatality rate than that of the flu.

“I think the public needs to know we’re responsible for Shelby County, we work closely together, and we do have a plan in place,” she said, pointing to the recent successes in mobilizing the community in the face of other disease threats. “Have confidence we’re going to do all we can in our power to reduce the path of the Coronavirus.”

Hysmith had a similar message. “We are concerned, but we are prepared,” he said.

Le Bonheur’s staff members are daily monitoring the CDC website for new information or guidelines. He said the hospital has increased its isolation capacity as a precaution.

McCullers pointed to research being done at UTHSC’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) under the leadership of Colleen Jonsson, Ph.D, professor and Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology, as another contribution by the university to the global effort to combat Coronavirus.

The RBL is one of 12 federally funded labs in the country designed to safely study dangerous pathogens. Jonsson and her team are studying COVID-19. “We have some very active research programs looking at Coronaviruses,” he said. “As we think about the national response and the international response to the virus, a lot of that will be informed by work being done at UTHSC.”

The university launched a website, uthsc.edu/coronavirus, to offer health care providers and the public information and answer questions about Coronavirus.

“We’re an integral part of the fabric of this community, we’re engaged in the care, and we want to be part of the solution,” McCullers said.

Peggy Reisser is the manager of communications for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

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