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Spike in COVID-19 cases at 201 Poplar prompts more testing

Cluster revealed after nearly 300 inmates, jail workers tested late last week.

MEMPHIS, Tenn — In Shelby County, there's concern about a huge cluster of new COVID-19 cases inside 201 Poplar in downtown Memphis, with nearly 200 detainees and jail workers testing positive in recent days.

Such a spike startled the Shelby County Health Director and set off more testing there in the weeks ahead.

The detainees who tested positive are now isolated and being treated separately from others on the sixth floor of 201 Poplar.

Of the 266 sampled last week, 155 detainees and 37 workers tested positive - a more than 70% positive rate.

"What was disconcerting for us from public health is that a significant number of those individuals tested were asymptomatic," Shelby County Health Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter said.

Wednesday, we were told all of the 155 detainees who tested positive have felony charges.

Since January - as COVID-19 concerns grew - law enforcement released about 1/5 of 201 Poplar's jail population facing lesser charges.

"We knew that those populations are particularly vulnerable for different reasons. They are in facilities that they that are in very close proximity to each other," Dr. Haushalter said.

While health experts prioritize more testing at 201 Poplar, Wednesday they also offered a positive sign of when the Shelby County economy can begin its gradual reopening.

Phase one of the 'Back to Business' plan would allow restaurants and stores at half capacity, with restrictions.

"We are very close. I want to remind people what I shared yesterday: we have to stay the course at this point. Social distancing has made a big difference," Dr. Haushalter said.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris expects the city of Memphis, the county, and its suburban towns will all follow the Back to Business plan in unison and at the same time.

"You see their perspective reflected in the final document. I have not heard any inkling among any Shelby County municipality to deviate from the consensus that we've worked so hard to build," Mayor Harris said.

Wednesday, we also learned Shelby County received nearly $50 million from the federal level for COVID-19 related expenses. Some of that money is expected to cover new health department positions.

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