Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist, said she is more concerned about COVID-19 in the state than ever before during a news conference on Wednesday — a day before South Carolina saw a single-day record of 687 new cases reported.
Dr. Joan Duwve, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's director of public health, reported the record number during a DHEC board meeting this morning. Duwve said the total number of cases in the state is now at 16,441, with 588 fatalities after 13 additional deaths were announced today.
Duwve said that 40% of S.C.'s reported cases have been diagnosed in the last three weeks. DHEC helped facilitate the testing of 110,000 South Carolinians in May and intends to have that many tested in June, she said.
Tests performed Wednesday had a 12.5% postiive rate, "which is high," Duwve said.
"As the number of tests being performed increases, so do the number of cases. We would expect that," Duwve said. "However, that percent positive rate continues to increase as well, which tells us that we are finding more real cases, not just cases that were asymptomatic and not otherwise diagnosed. We are finding a larger number of South Carolinians who have contracted this illness."
Duwve said DHEC-led testing of S.C. nursing homes and long-term care facilities is complete and expects those findings to be shared soon. More than 40% of the state's COVID-19 deaths have been among long-term care facility residents, she said.
Bell addressed the rising numbers during a press conference held Wednesday.
“For the past two weeks, we have seen some of our highest daily numbers since the pandemic began,” Bell said.
On Monday, DHEC announced a then-record 542 new cases.
“This is a question of individual responsibility, and that’s all something we have at our disposal," Gov. Henry McMaster said at the press conference.
McMaster extended a state of emergency (.pdf) enacted April 27 but said the state would not close nonessential businesses again and is instead moving forward with reopening more shuttered attractions. He said he looks forward to the reopening of movie theaters, bowling alleys and sporting arenas as soon as feasible in compliance with recommendations from the AccelerateSC task force.
“I’ve got no intention closing of any more businesses. No intention,” McMaster said Wednesday. “What we need to do is practice that social distancing, or another word for it — being smart. There’s a lot of stupid floating around out there."
Greenville County has the highest case counts in S.C. for the past week and a half and is now considered a state hot spot, Bell said, adding that the area’s Latino community is particularly vulnerable, contributing to 31% of the total cases.
Duwve said today that a little more than 40% of the new cases in Greenville County are among the Hispanic population.
As of Wednesday, 513 of the state’s 7,608 in-use hospital beds were occupied by patients who had tested positive or were suspected of having COVID-19, according to DHEC.
Memorial Day celebrations helped drive the spike in infections, along with widespread protests and other community gatherings across the state, Bell said. She reiterated that maintaining six feet of distance in a crowd or wearing a mask or face covering are not enough on their own to mitigate infection and encouraged South Carolinians to take both precautions.
“A vaccine is not here yet, and we don’t know when it’s going to be here, but it’s disappointing to go places and see people all jammed up in crowds, celebrating the beautiful weather, celebrating being in South Carolina, but at the same time, exposing themselves and possibly others to these risks,” McMaster said. “The ultimate price for this lack of care is death.”
McMaster thanked AccelerateSC for its ongoing work and entreated the General Assembly to turn the task force’s suggestions into law, as he also did in a letter to Legislature leadership earlier Wednesday.
Namely, the governor asked the General Assembly to allocate $500 million out of $1.9 billion in federal COVID-19 funding toward the state’s Unemployment Insurance trust fund. Projections show that the fund will be $600 million short by the end of December, according to McMaster.
The 2009 recession had almost drained the fund, he said, requiring the state to appeal for federal financing and boost business taxes.
“Many businesses will not survive paying higher taxes to replenish the fund in one decade,” McMaster wrote in the letter.
Public schools planning to tack on additional days before the typical start of the academic year to help students catch up after the virus closed schools in April would be awarded $215 million, while $225 million would be earmarked to reimburse local governments, hospitals, state agencies and higher education institutions for COVID-19-related expenses under McMaster’s recommendations.
About $250,000 would be allocated to expand the state’s broadband internet infrastructure.
“I believe this (these recommendations) may be the most important step we can take toward restoring our state’s economic engines to full speed, and it will instill a renewed sense of confidence and stability with our business owners, investors and entrepreneurs,” McMaster said in a news release.
Columbia Regional Business Report editor Melinda Waldrop contributed to this article.