St. Jude CEO shares hospital’s COVID-19 testing strategy, sends message about wearing masks

Updated: Jul. 27, 2020 at 7:28 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is taking every possible measure to protect its young patients from COVID-19.

That means testing every single on-campus patient, their family members and every staff member.

It adds up to 6,000 tests a week.

“We have one of the largest testing programs in the United States,” said Dr. James Downing, St. Jude CEO. “We are testing every single employee once a week.”

Downing says testing everyone on the St. Jude campus reveals so much about the nature of COVID-19.

“We are testing everybody. No symptoms? They get tested once a week,” said Downing. “We are finding that half of those being positive for the virus actually have no symptoms whatsoever. So when you’re testing people who have symptoms, you can see who has COVID and who doesn’t. So you would miss a significant number of individuals who are infected. So here on our campus, we have to test everybody.”

Downing has assigned nearly 100 St. Jude team members to different phases of COVID-19 testing, including technicians who process nasal swabs in St. Jude labs with rapid results in less than 24 hours.

If anyone tests positive, St. Jude has its own contact tracing team that works to identify, test and then isolate anyone deemed a potential COVID-19 carrier.

“It is above and beyond what can be done in the public or other hospitals but because of the nature of our patients, we felt this is essential for us to do,” said Downing.

Downing’s team created different zones on campus so staff and family foot traffic steers well clear of patients who already have compromised immune systems.

“So we think of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as one of the safest places in the United States from this virus and we have to do that because of the susceptible nature of our patients,” he said.

Downing also says he’s proud of St. Jude employees who united and began all kinds of efforts to protect the campus from the virus.

In addition, Downing is making an urgent appeal for all of us to wear a mask to help protect the hospital’s immune-compromised patients and yourself from COVID-19.

“I think every single person in Shelby County and the surrounding area by wearing a mask is actually doing something that protects our children,” he said.

If everyone wears a mask, Downing says, the COVID-19 spread is reduced as St. Jude’s 5,000 employees go to the grocery, gas station or anywhere.

“By wearing a mask, you are decreasing the spread of the coronavirus within the community and thereby decreasing the chance that our employees will catch the coronavirus,” he said.

COVID-19 terrifies St. Jude families with children whose immune systems have been made fragile by chemotherapy and more.

“We are all wearing a mask all the time. Every single building, anywhere on campus, every single day,” said Downing.

They’re also staying 6 feet apart with floor stickers reminding everyone to keep their distance campus-wide. Downing says social distancing improves what masks do.

“Its effectiveness is improved and increased significantly if you stay 6 feet away from an individual and so we’re maintaining that,” he said.

Downing says Memphis community’s mask-wearing means a safer St. Jude and children better protected from COVID-19.

”Wear the mask to decrease the spread of the virus,” said Downing. “So that you’re decreasing the chance of anyone catching the virus, yourself included. So it’s a small act of kindness but one that supports us in a very big way.”

St. Jude has one of the largest and most sophisticated testing programs for COVID-19 anywhere in the country.

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