As Covid cases rise, SC DHEC says mask up - again
By Liv Osby
With the number of coronavirus cases in South Carolina spiking 92.6 percent since last week, state health officials are recommending that everyone living in a county with substantial or high transmission wear masks in public again - even those who are vaccinated.
And that accounts for most of the state.
“What we are seeing is a dramatic uptick in the number of cases,” said Dr. Jane Kelly, assistant state epidemiologist with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“It’s of great concern.”
On Thursday, DHEC announced 1,867 new cases, 10 new deaths and a positivity rate of 15.4 percent.
The increase has several causes including the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, Kelly told Integrated Media, publishers of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine.
One study found that the incubation period for the Delta variant is shorter by two days than previous variants, and that the viral load - or amount of virus in the upper respiratory system – is more than 1,000 times higher, she said.
But since May, people have also become more complacent about wearing masks and social distancing, Kelly said.
In addition, South Carolina - with just 44.4 percent of its residents fully vaccinated - is 40th in the nation in terms of vaccination rate, which also allows the virus, and hence the variants, to spread, she said.
According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid data tracker, which shows whether a county’s transmission rate is low, moderate, substantial or high, just two counties in the state have moderate spread, eight have substantial spread and all the other counties have a high transmission rate, Kelly said.
“There are zero at low,” she said. “Almost everywhere in the state right now is at substantial or high transmission.”
While some states have rates so high that hospitals are having trouble keeping up with inpatients, South Carolina isn’t at that point, she said.
“But we never want to be,” she added.
DHEC made the mask recommendations based on CDC guidance, which also calls on community leaders to encourage vaccination and masking to prevent further outbreaks.
The City of Columbia on Thursday urged its residents to get vaccinated because of the rising number of cases in the Midlands. And it’s partnering with Prisma Health, DHEC and Lexington Medical Center to host free vaccination clinics at city facilities.
But how are businesses in the state to deal with masking since state law prevents DHEC from imposing a mandate?
While DHEC recommends that everyone 12 and older get vaccinated, it can only provide recommendations. And different businesses may have different policies – restaurants versus medical offices, for example, Kelly said.
“It’s up to businesses to decide their own mask policies that are not only in the best interest of their own business, but their customers and staff,” she said. “And once a decision is made, it’s up to businesses to decide how to ensure compliance.”
And like Google, the Washington Post and Shake Shack, among other companies, which are requiring their employees and/or customers to be vaccinated, according to published reports, Kelly says businesses in the Palmetto State must set their own course.
She suggested that businesses follow the advice of credible public health experts, whether governmental or academic, and avoid the misinformation that circulates on social media.
Kelly also recommended that businesses consult a website Seven-Ways-Businesses-Can-Align-with-Public-Health.pdf (debeaumont.org), which provides advice from Johns Hopkins University experts about how they can protect the health of their customers and employees.
The state reported 1,105 new cases on Wednesday, the highest daily count since Feb. 14, according to Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist.
Since the pandemic began, the state has recorded nearly 615,000 confirmed cases, more than 24,000 hospitalizations and nearly 10,000 deaths, according to DHEC.
Dr. Brannon Traxler, public health director for DHEC, said that as the virus spreads, it mutates into new and possibly more infectious variants, like the Delta variant.
“We were hoping to reach herd immunity to stifle the spread of Covid-19 to prevent this scenario,” she said, “but public health urgency now makes it necessary to return to recommending universal masking in public indoor settings.”
Meanwhile, Kelly said, vaccination is still the best way to end the pandemic.
In June, more than 90 percent of Covid cases and deaths, and 86 percent of hospitalizations, were among people who weren’t fully vaccinated, according to DHEC. The numbers sound lower than national CDC estimates, which set nearly all deaths among the unvaccinated, because of the way DHEC tracks Covid, Kelly said.
Fully vaccinated is defined as two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and two weeks after the second shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, she said.
Meanwhile, DHEC also recommended masking for teachers, students, parents and visitors in K-12 schools. The state recorded nearly 19,000 Covid cases among students and faculty through June 18, 2021, the agency says.
“The last thing we want is for Covid-19 to spread through our schools causing avoidable illness,” said DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer. “Our students and educators deserve the right to learn and teach in a safe, healthy environment, and vaccinations will make that possible.”To find a location for vaccination, go to COVID-19 Vaccine Locations | SCDHEC.