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Posted on: May 18, 2020

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris Statement on Proposal for Massive Expansion of Health Department

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Right now, we are positioned to make a significant investment in protecting our public health. Today we will be asking the Shelby County Commission to approve 141 new positions in the Shelby County Health Department, new positions that will be singularly devoted to confronting COVID-19 in Shelby County. The new positions will be financed by federal resources.

I want to give you a few highlights of the proposed Health Department expansion and ask you to please support this expansion by contacting your Shelby County Commissioner.

First, we would develop strike teams to focus on the needs of vulnerable populations, including seniors, nursing home residents, detainees, and others.  

Second, we would hire four epidemiologists. Our “epi-team” is principally responsible for the data analysis that we have all come to rely on over these last several weeks.  This part of the plan would represent a near doubling of our data analysis capabilities.

Third, we would expand our ability to collaborate with external partners, including the media, to disseminate regular and reliable information. Additionally, we will expand our ability to utilize traditional media and social media to get our message out about the various roles that each of us play in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in Shelby County.

As you know, we have a large contingency of staff working on contact tracing right now. We have dozens of employees that are on loan from the City of Memphis, we have dozens of employees that are on loan from other responsibilities within the Health Department, and many volunteers to whom we are grateful. The current situation is not sustainable, as some of the staff will eventually have to return to their normal duties. So, fourth, we will recruit dozens and dozens of contact tracers and related support staff. This will give us the ability to continue to run a large contact tracing operation as new cases emerge.

Fifth, we will see a massive expansion of our ability to manage compliance issues with the various health directives. Additionally, we will be able to educate and provide technical assistance to organizations trying to figure out how to create safe environments, with sufficient social distance. Sixth, we will be able to offer training to team members and volunteers.

Seventh, we will be able to create a Testing Team that manages COVID-19 testing out of the Health Department, which will be a new function, and helps advise external partners on testing. As mentioned, for the most part, this expansion will be financed by federal dollars that were received through the CARES Act. Because of the nature of the federal resources, these positions will mostly be durational or positions that are tied to federal funding.

It is important to note that most of these positions will only exist while we have federal funding to pay for them. Nevertheless, this would represent a massive expansion of our Health Department’s capabilities.

I believe this expansion is justifiable in light of the advent of COVID-19 and the danger this disease represents to our public health.

Again, the proposal being brought forward today asks that the Commission support an initial investment of $6.4 million out of these federal dollars. This will allow us to begin hiring for the 141 new positions. The total cost of the Health Department expansion will be approximately $11.4 million. Also, this is a collaborative effort. We expect that, if the Commission supports the expansion, we will bring on additional partners to help support the balance that’s needed. Again, this investment is needed to slow the spread and expand our ability to protect the public health. Please contact your representative on the Commission and ask them to support expanding our Health Department.


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