MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Wednesday, David Sweat with the Shelby County Health Department said there was cluster of more than 20 cases last month within the University of Memphis' athletics program of the highly contagious, COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
Sweat said this was a much smaller cluster compared to another confirmed COVID-19 cluster at the University of Memphis last August and September.
"I would commend the University of Memphis because of course they were very instrumental in recognizing and getting those folks in quarantine and isolation that were exposed," Sweat said.
Wednesday, Local 24 News also learned area labs detected five times as many COVID-19 variant cases in February compared to January.
"What you can assume is that they are all here, and it almost certainly more than the numbers that we are reporting, because we are only sequencing a small snippet of the population," Dr. Scott Strome with the UT Health Science Center said.
Dr. Strome said the good news is - to date - COVID-19 vaccines are still effective - to varying degrees - against the newly emerging strains.
"The way we can knock that out is more people getting vaccinated quickly and by folks who aren't getting vaccinated to adhere to good social hygiene," Dr. Strome said.
"We still have social distance. We still have to wear masks in public. We still have to wash our hands constantly," Sweat added.
Those with the Shelby County COVID-19 Joint Task Force said what is also encouraging is more area labs can now do the required sequencing to detect COVID-19 variant strains among positive samples.
Beyond the biocontainment lab at UTHSC, that work is also being done at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Poplar Healthcare.
(UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS NEWS RELEASE 3/11/2021) - A pandemic success story occurred early last month as quick response and collaboration among the University of Memphis, American Esoteric Laboratories (AEL) and the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force helped quell the spread of the UK B.1.1.7 mutant strain in Memphis Athletics.
The successful result was no more cases.
The strain was isolated to the athletics department while no other UofM students were exposed. Tracing was done extensively with the UofM, and the Shelby County Health Department was made aware of all the cases.
AEL and Dr. Manoj Jain, a member of the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force, were key advisors throughout the diligent process. Subsequent testing has shown more than 1,000 tests all being negative. Surveillance testing continues at the UofM while the general student body has not been impacted. The general student body and student-athletes at-large continue to be separated.
Despite a four-day shutdown of testing from Feb. 15-18 because of the snowstorm in Memphis, 2,327 student-athletes and staff members in Memphis Athletics were tested from Feb. 8-28. There were 2,292 negative results and 31 positive cases. Of those, 29 were identified as having the UK Variant.
After the four-day shutdown, all 595 Memphis Athletics student-athletes and staff members were tested Feb. 19-20 with 11 testing positive. Of those, 10 were identified as having the UK variant.
“The response by the University of Memphis is a perfect example of how to contain the virus,” said Jain, an infectious disease expert. “Memphis Athletics did a superb job of early tracing, isolating and quarantining the affected persons which contained the number of cases.
“Assurance (asymptomatic testing) identified a case with a marker (S-drop) for the mutant UK strain. Within 24 hours of testing, our laboratories notified the athletic department that the case could be the UK mutant strain. Mother nature also helped because it was the week of the snowstorm and everything was shut down. This tracing was supplemented by aggressive testing which led to finding new cases of the mutant strain. After a week, no further cases of the UK strain were discovered, showing that the outbreak was successfully contained through collaborative efforts.”
In the early stages, assurance testing and surveillance testing were important for detection. Secondly, communication between AEL and Memphis Athletics led to early identification of the mutant strain.
Excellent tracing done by Memphis Athletics led to the subsequent isolation and quarantine of student-athletes. Repeated testing has shown that the success resulted in no further cases being identified which prevented the outbreak from being spread to the rest of the University and to Greater Memphis.
“Protecting our community requires quick, coordinated and thoughtful responses driven by the most up-to-date scientific data,” said UofM President M. David Rudd. “We are fortunate to be part of a community that puts the well-being of our citizens first.”
The extensive measures the UofM has taken throughout the pandemic with information communicated, testing, assurance and testing of student-athletes proved pivotal.
“The University’s response is a ‘best practice example’ which other employers and institutions need to follow to prevent outbreaks in their workplaces,” said Jain. “The outbreak at the UofM also shows how rapidly the UK mutant strain of the COVID-19 virus can spread. Within days, the case number went from a few cases to 10s of cases. If action was not taken, it would have easily been hundreds and even thousands of cases from the mutant strain.”