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Winter weather in Memphis could have one benefit: reducing COVID-19 transmission

Corinne S Kennedy
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Snow, ice, sleet and cold temperatures continue to wreak havoc in the Mid-South, closing schools, businesses and government offices and making many roads nearly impassable. But local health experts said it could have some benefits for Shelby County’s fight against COVID-19. 

David Sweat, chief epidemiologist for the Shelby County Health Department, said people sheltering at home due to the winter weather can have the same positive impacts seen when people with the virus isolate at home.

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“To the extent that the winter weather increases the likelihood people currently shedding infectious viruses stay isolated and do not mix with other people, it will suppress virus transmission in the community,” he said.

On Wednesday, Shelby County's transmission rate was .82, a sign the spread of the virus is slowing and active cases are decreasing, according to COVID Act Now. There were 2,385 active cases reported by the Shelby County Health Department Wednesday, the lowest number since Oct. 23 and an 18% decline from a week before.

Memphis has endured close to a week of frigid temperatures. Shelby County residents woke up Feb. 11 to a coating of ice on homes, cars, streets, trees and powerlines, disrupting traffic and, in some cases, leading to power outages. Then a snowstorm that started late on Valentine’s Day dumped inches of snow throughout the metro area, with some areas having received up to six inches as of Monday afternoon. 

Difficult road conditions and a limited number of snowplows led public officials to encourage all nonessential personnel to stay off the roads for their own safety and to keep lanes clear for emergency vehicles. 

Nick Newman waits with and his dog Rocky, as his wife Kendra gets her COVID-19 vaccine inside the Shelby County Schools administration building Memphis, Tenn. Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

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Dr. Steve Threlkeld, co-chair of the infection control program for Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, said on Monday a week to 10 days of Memphians waiting out the winter weather in their homes can have a positive impact.

“It doesn’t take long for important trends to occur,” he said. “We have some competing curves that are contributing to the overall epidemiology of our current situation. There’s the transmission curve and taking that transmission curve and blunting it, even turning it substantially downward, for 10 solid days would be an extraordinary benefit. Because, at the same time, you have the ever-increasing vaccination curve.”

Even if vaccinations are not progressing as fast as people may have hoped for, he said, vaccinations are progressing. 

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a Shelby County Schools vaccination site on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

As of Wednesday, 100,324 total doses have been disseminated in Shelby County and 3% of the Shelby County population has gotten two shots, according to the health department.

With the more contagious UK and Brazilian COVID-19 variants now identified in Shelby County, and likely to become the dominant strains, Threlkeld said any decrease in the transmission rate and increase in vaccinations will make a positive impact. 

Local medical experts and public health officials continue to stress that, even with the positive trends seen in the past month, Shelby County is not out of the woods yet. And any gains made as people stay home amid the cold snap can be undone if everyone goes out and gets together with friends and relatives when the weather improves. 

Maintenance worker Lelon Armstrong shovels the sidewalk outside a parking garage in Downtown Memphis, Tenn. as below-freezing temperatures grip the Mid-South on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

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But any ground gained in the fight against the virus is a good thing, Threlkeld said.

“It gives us another leg up,” he said. 

Commercial Appeal reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

Corinne Kennedy covers economic development, soccer and COVID-19’s impact on hospitals for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email at Corinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com or at 901-297-3245.