Within weeks of the first COVID-19 case in Shelby County in early March 2020, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and its clinical practice partner, University Clinical Health, had the largest drive-through testing station in Shelby County up and running, staffing it morning to night with dozens of volunteers, many of them students.
For the blanket of support across nearly 22 months of the pandemic, Mayor Jim Strickland honored UTHSC and UCH leaders, along with other health care and civic leaders with its 2022 MLK Luminary Awards, the highest honor the city gives. All the honorees have played key roles in helping the city battle COVID-19.
Among the recipients are Scott Strome, MD, Robert Kaplan Executive Dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine and vice chancellor for Health Affairs, and Jon McCullers, MD, senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs and chief operating officer for the College of Medicine, chair of the UTHSC Department of Pediatrics, and pediatrician-in-chief of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Others physicians affiliated with UTHSC who received the award are: Manoj Jain, MD; Stephen Threlkeld, MD; and LaTonya Washington, MD.
UCH recipients are Shannon Tacker, chief executive officer; Lisa Brown Rodgers, Courtney Love; and former staffer, Tiffany Wright.
The City of Memphis recognized the honorees during a ceremony earlier this week. Watch the 2022 Luminary Awards at https://vimeo.com/666613602 .
“Working collaboratively, we’ve sought to help combat this pandemic on numerous fronts. With University Clinical Health, we stood up some of the first testing sites in Memphis. We also built one of the first CLIA-certified laboratories for testing in an academic institution,” Dr. Strome said.
“It’s really a privilege to help our community during their time of greatest need,” he said.
He and Dr. McCullers personally helped run drive-through testing and vaccination sites in all kinds of weather. The public stations, including Pipkin and Appling Road, provided access for tests, then vaccinations to thousands of people in Shelby County.
UTHSC also offered the community access to its infectious disease experts through online forums. It worked with local, state, and federal authorities to build and staff the COVID field hospital in the former Commercial Appeal building. Though it was never activated, it was large enough to accommodate 400 patients.
Its students stepped forward by the hundreds to help staff hospitals under an executive order signed by Gov. Bill Lee that deputized health care workers not yet certified. UTHSC also created a COVID website with FAQs and information, locally and nationally, on the pandemic.
Even before the first case was identified here, leaders at UTHSC and UCH were building lab operations to detect SARS-CoV-2 on the thousands of swabs expected to pour in. By mid-March 2020, the team had filed for emergency-use authorization from the Food & Drug Administration. By late that month, they had assembled tens of thousands of testing kits, put together specimen testing analysis — including writing the script for the robotics — and then honed the whole customer interface to the point the city of Memphis could open Tiger Lane, one of the first public testing centers in the region.
“I would say that a tremendous number of dedicated people from UTHSC have participated in the city’s pandemic response by providing their time and expertise,” Dr. McCullers said.
“It is a great honor to me personally to receive this award in recognition of their work. I also appreciate UTHSC having the trust in me to be a public communicator of our evolving understanding of the science that informed our pandemic response,” he said.
Dr. McCullers serves on the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force.
As the pandemic evolved, UTHSC and UCH pivoted to offer the next level of support, which included transitioning testing centers into vaccination sites and then back again. The partnership opened its newest testing center on Dunlap early this month as positivity rates to soared to new highs.
“Our lab has done an amazing job with turnaround times,” Tacker said. “We have told people to give us 24 to 36 hours to be sure. Our average has been eight hours. It’s been unbelievable.”
In two weeks, the partners with volunteer help have tested more than 2,700 people at the Dunlap site in the heart of the UTHSC campus.
“It’s the right thing to. This is what we do. We are in health care. In situations like this, we are supposed to step up,” Tacker said.
The City of Memphis began the MLK Luminary Awards in 2018 to honor the surviving members of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike.
That gravity makes the award particularly poignant, Tacker said.
“It means a lot to all of us. We are all very humbled by it.”