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SC nonprofit recommends keeping schools open and more changes during next pandemic

Pastides

Harris Pastides, task force co-chair and former University of South Carolina president, speaks at an Aug. 17, 2022, news conference about the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health's recommendations for the state. Skylar Laird/Staff

COLUMBIA — Keep schools in South Carolina open during future disease outbreaks, a new report from Columbia-based nonprofit recommends.

The report also calls for the state to improve its pandemic response for strengthening and increasing the health care workforce and implementing ways for health care providers to exchange information.

The South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health facilitated the report, which included representatives from several state agencies. It examined how the state responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and gives recommendations as to what the state could improve and how to prepare for another pandemic.

The institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that advocates for health policy, has released four previous reports, the last one in April 2021, tracking how the state responded to the pandemic.

Beginning in March 2020, Gov. Henry McMaster issued a series of 15-day executive orders declaring a state of emergency. He signed the final one May 22, 2021. 

Although the state is no longer in a state of emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. South Carolina had more than 12,000 new COVID-19 cases and eight deaths Aug. 7-13, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 1.6 million cases of the virus in the state, with 18,227 deaths.

About 60 percent of people eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose, with 52.7 percent being fully vaccinated, according to DHEC.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic impacted so many parts of life, the report addressed the following areas for change: public health infrastructure, data distribution, workforce, education, supply chain, health care delivery, behavioral health, and telehealth and broadband. 

The recommendations are meant to put the state in a better position for the next outbreak of a contagious disease, Harris Pastides, task force co-chair and former University of South Carolina president, said at an Aug. 17 news conference.

"Could be monkeypox, could be worse, we don't know," Pastides said. "But I can tell you it will happen again."

Department of Health and Environmental Control Public Health Director Brannon Traxler speaks at a news conference Aug. 17. The South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health released a list of recommendations for the state to respond to a pandemic, which Traxler said the department plans to use.

Education

Closing schools was one of McMaster's first responses to the pandemic, as it was for states across the country.

The University of South Carolina, under then-President Robert Caslen, was one of the first in the state to close because of the virus. Richland County schools were among the last.

The institute's report calls for schools to remain open during future contagious disease outbreaks. 

Schools should remain open, the report recommends, but they should also have the capacity to switch to virtual or hybrid learning if needed.

Sending students home to prevent the spread of disease in classrooms caused a litany of other issues, from a lack of child care to learning loss while teachers scrambled to pivot to remote learning, according to the report. 

For high-risk students, the report recommends allowing virtual options that are tailored to keep them engaged and connected to their classmates, in case they need to stop going to in-person classes.

"How valuable is that, for our society in South Carolina to know that people who studied this said, 'Be prepared to be virtual, be prepared to be hybrid, but don't close the schools,'" Pastides said. "Because we've learned about the devastating impact on students, the burden on their families, on teachers." 

Workforce

The country was facing a shortage of nurses even before the pandemic, said DHEC Public Health Director Brannon Traxler. The virus exacerbated the problem and caused a dire drop in the number of nurses.

"This obstacle has impacted every health care and public health setting," Traxler said, "and the severity and impact is reflected in the workforce category containing the report's largest number of recommendations."

Those recommendations say the state should encourage more people to enter the field through apprenticeships and processes to guide nursing students into programs. The state should also better support current health care professionals and other essential workers, according to the report, through mental health programs and set plans to address burnout. 

"As the pandemic continued and immunizations became available, there was a cultural shift from adoration to aversion for some, and in some cases harassment and violence," the report reads. "The resulting moral injury has impacted health care workers across occupations."

Other solutions might be for hospitals to reconsider keeping their staffing centered around nurses and look at more team-based methods. Or, they could increase the use of technology like artificial intelligence for check-in and triage so doctors can focus on other areas.

Similarly, the report recommends continuing to use telehealth so that people can keep seeing their doctors during outbreaks. 

"(DHEC is) expanding our ability to reach those who can't reach us through normal mechanisms by using mobile clinics, telehealth appointments and more," Traxler said.

Policy

Many recommendations in the report for the state's response revolve around how information is communicated.

The South Carolina Emergency Management Division conducted regular calls with county leaders across the state, but people in more rural areas were often unaware of what resources were available, according to the report. 

It suggests engaging bilingual people to connect to residents who don't speak English, partnering with local churches and other trusted community organizations, and creating an open-access database for minority media groups. 

Health providers, labs and officials should also have easier communication, which the state could facilitate through a health information exchange system. Health Sciences South Carolina and the South Carolina Health Information Exchange are working with DHEC to set up a system to do this, according to the report.

Generally, officials should follow the evidence when issuing guidance, the report says. And the state should be prepared with the means and plans in place to address a similar health crisis in the same way it's prepared for a hurricane to hit, even though the impact might look different, Traxler said.

"I believe that our state's preparedness for how to respond effectively to contagious disease outbreaks will improve to be on par with our ability to respond to hurricanes," she said, "though hopefully with not quite as many recurrent experiences."

Click here for more news from Columbia, S.C.

Reach Skylar Laird at (843) 830-1526. Follow her on Twitter @sky_latte_.