FOX13 Investigates: Are Shelby County doctors ready for the next pandemic?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It’s been two and a half years since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Shelby County.

It’s hard to imagine how little we knew about the virus then compared to what we know now.

FOX13′s health reporter Mandy Hrach sat down with some of the health experts that led the COVID response in the Mid-South about lessons we’ve learned and how we should prepare for the next pandemic.

The pandemic has forced us to take a closer look at ourselves, our relationships and our work lives.

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Some of the lessons learned will be with us even as we enter life after COVID.

Wade and Rachel Smith managed to avoid COVID until they tested positive for the first time in August.

“We both got the booster. So, we were kind of prepared for it. But, this newest round that came around we got hit with, and it took us both out for a couple of weeks,” Wade said.

Though their symptoms were serious, they considered themselves lucky.

That’s because we know much more about the virus and how to treat it than we did two years ago.

“We built physical structures; we built systems and abilities to do vaccines and monoclonal antibodies that saved a lot of lives,” Dr. Steve Threlkeld, an infectious disease expert at Baptist Memorial Healthcare said.

Dr. Threlkeld was at the center of Shelby County’s pandemic response from the very beginning.

He said there are many lessons we can learn from COVID.

“I think the first one is humility. We are not as good as we thought we were,” he said.

Dr. Threlkeld said COVID has taught us the importance of pushing information out quickly and accurately so healthcare workers and community members have time to respond.

“The next pandemic needs to be identified very quickly, because as we saw all too well with COVID, the ability to do something about it may be limited to a very short period of time in the beginning,” he said.

Shelby County Health Director Dr. Michelle Taylor said COVID has taught us how important it is to build trust in healthcare.

“We understand that the community trusting the health department, trusting other agencies responsible for responding in emergencies is everything,” Taylor said.

In 2021, the health department had multiple problems with the vaccine rollout, including a potential theft by a volunteer.

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Dr. Taylor was not the head of the department at the time, but she said they are much more careful about who assists with the health department in any scenario.

“Now we know what kind of things we need to be monitoring, and how we can’t make assumptions about any individual coming to help or volunteer,” she said.

While we celebrate the progress years into the pandemic, Dr. Taylor said the virus will be with us for a while.

“Even if you had COVID but haven’t been vaccinated, you carry some sort of natural immunity,” she said. “All of those things combined will get us closer to an endemic status.”

Wade tells FOX13 he feels COVID has prepared people for the next pandemic.

“It’s definitely on everybody’s minds more. So being a little more conscious about contact with people, stuff like that,” she said.

The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone ages six months and older. To find a vaccine provider near you, click here.