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Army Corps reviews backup medical sites, jobless claims rise

As more people get sick from the new coronavirus in Tennessee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has evaluated sites in the Memphis area to convert to medical care facilities to ease the burden on hospitals facing an incoming wave of patients.

Meanwhile, the number of jobless Tennesseans continued to swell as more companies lay off workers. New unemployment claims climbed to about 94,500 last week, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday.

Late Wednesday, the Army Corps said its Memphis district has been asked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials to assess possible locations for alternate care facilities in West Tennessee.

Reviews of six sites have been completed, spokesman Jim Pogue said in an emailed statement. FEMA will select the sites and the Corps of Engineers may then get asked to build the facilities, the statement said.

Sites include large arenas, a former shopping mall, and an existing medical care facility. FedExForum in Memphis and University of Tennessee athletics facilities are under consideration, according to officials and news reports.

Hospitals are preparing for a surge of coronavirus patients by seeking more supplies such as masks, ventilators and beds. Residents are urged to follow social distancing rules and stay home as much as possible as virus patient counts rise. Still, officials worry the need for key supplies and medical staff will exceed capacity.

Tennessee’s health department has reported 2,683 cases of the coronavirus and 24 deaths. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, has seen 638 cases and five deaths.

Earlier this week, Gov. Bill Lee ordered all non-essential businesses to close. However, the Republican held off from mandating Tennesseans to stay home. Instead, the executive order only urges the public to do so.

Lee has argued he is resisting a statewide mandate because he wants to “protect personal liberties” despite receiving thousands of pleas from doctors and other medical professionals that such efforts would help curb the virus’ spread.

In Chattanooga, Mayor Andy Berke issued a strict stay-at-home order. Unlike Lee’s order, Berke is mandating that residents stay home by restricting all non-essential travel and suspending access to city-owned public spaces.

In Memphis, the need for volunteer medical staff, ventilators and hospital beds is growing, said Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease physician and member of Shelby County’s coronavirus task force.

Hospitals need three times the existing number of ventilators, double the amount of regular hospital beds, and four times the number of intensive care beds, Jain said, citing state-level data.

Memphis’ four major hospital systems are considering new strategies such as putting two coronavirus patients in one room, converting regular rooms to intensive care rooms, and using ventilators from anesthesia and surgical rooms for COVID-19 treatment, Jain said.

A logistics group is working to find face masks for doctors and nurses. And testing capacity is increasing, Jain said.

“It’s always an uphill battle doing the task that’s ahead of us of such magnitude,” Jain said in a phone interview.

Around the state, layoffs in the restaurant, hotel, retail and other industries have led to a stark increase in unemployed workers. The numbers released Thursday more than double the 39,100 new unemployment claims from the previous week.

Three weeks ago — before cities and counties began issuing orders closing non-essential businesses — only 2,700 unemployment claims were filed in Tennessee.

The large bump in claims caused the state’s jobs website to experience problems due to a 2,000% increase in usage. Technicians added capacity to the system to improve responsiveness, officials said.

Some of the biggest recent temporary layoffs include more than 880 workers at automotive parts maker ABC Technologies in Sumner County; 830 people at hotel company Chartwell Hospitality in Sevier, Williamson and Davidson counties; and 222 workers with auto parts manufacturer Takahata Precision Tennessee in Scott County.

Colleges and universities have closed and shifted to online learning. The University of Tennessee system says summer session classes at all campuses will be delivered online in response to the new coronavirus outbreak.

In most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and may be life-threatening.

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