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SCDHEC, Prisma seeing COVID-19 numbers ease, but stress continued social distancing

Plus: USC student decision forthcoming; COMET furloughs some drivers

  • Updated
John A. Carlos II

Dr. Linda Bell, an epidemiologist for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, explains measures that DHEC is taking to stop the spread of COVID-19 at the state emergency operation center on March 15, 2020.

The world can change drastically in just more than a month.

It’s a fact that’s thrown into sharp relief when you consider the circumstances in South Carolina at the time of the initial March 6 meeting of the Midlands Coronavirus Task force and the April 23 gathering of that multi-jurisdictional body.

When the task force initially came together in early March to open the lines of communication about COVID-19 preparedness across the Columbia area, there had not been a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the Palmetto State. However, when the group gathered again on April 23, things had changed: By that time, more than 4,700 positive cases and 140 deaths had been reported statewide, with Richland County leading the state at that point in total number of cases (725) and coronavirus fatalities (15).

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly walloped the Midlands and South Carolina — schools are closed for the rest of the academic year, many businesses have shuttered, and more than 340,000 people have filed for unemployment in the last five weeks — the Midlands Coronavirus Task Force is turning its eyes forward.

The group — which is comprised of leaders from the City of Columbia, Richland County, other neighboring cities, representatives from the health care field, state-level public health officials, K-12 and college education administrators, and leaders from the business and nonprofit community — used its April 23 gathering to offer updates on how the virus is impacting operations, and to begin to plan for what comes next.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell noted that the state agency’s lab has, for now, caught up with the demand for COVID-19 testing.

“Currently, our public health laboratory has no backlog in being able to conduct testing, which was an issue early on with limited supplies and limited reagents to turn around the test results,” Bell told the task force. She added that DHEC — which had tested more than 43,000 South Carolinians as of April 23 — is now turning around test results in 24-48 hours.

She says submissions to the public health lab have fallen recently, and that the agency has “significant additional capacity to perform many more tests” in South Carolina.

Bell, the epidemiologist who has often been seen alongside Gov. Henry McMaster in his press briefings throughout the crisis, noted that, in the week leading up to the task force meeting, DHEC had been getting an average of 162 positive coronavirus cases per day. That was a slight decrease from the first week of April, when it was getting 180 cases per day. She noted that cases have plateaued in South Carolina, but was quick to note that a plateau was not a downward trend.

She says a downward trend could soon come — if South Carolinians continue to follow social distancing guidelines.

“We are very hopeful to see a significant and sustained downward trend, not a plateau, that will give us confidence that we are moving in the right direction,” Bell said. “Our current data shows us that social distancing measures and staying home has helped to combat the the spread of this disease. That is what has brought us, potentially, this plateau.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of maintaining that social distancing as we do guarded re-openings in the community. We must sustain social distancing and those personal protective measures in order to see a continued downward trend.”

One of the major concerns at the outset of the rise in COVID-19 in South Carolina and across the nation was that the number of serious cases could balloon and overwhelm the health care system and hospitals.

While Richland County leads the state in the overall number of coronavirus cases, the area’s main hospital provider says it is currently able to meet demand.

Prisma Health president and CEO Mark O’Halla said on April 23 that the number of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 across its statewide system has eased.

“As of [April 22] we had a total of 74 positive patients in our hospitals across Prisma,” O’Halla said. “Thirty-seven of those 74 were in Columbia. The peak in terms of what we were anticipating at the end of [April] or the first of May has actually already occurred. For Prisma, it was back on April 3, when we had a total of 90 patients across our system. Again, as of [April 22] we had 74. We are seeing a slow downward trend over the last two weeks. So, we are pleased about that.”

Prisma continues to do drive-thru coronavirus testing at facilities in Columbia, Greenville and Sumter. O’Halla said Prisma is “in really good shape relative to anything that might happen” as it relates to COVID-19, adding, “It looks like we are going to avoid the big surges that we saw elsewhere in the country.”

According to DHEC, hospital bed utilization was at 58.3 percent at all hospitals statewide, as of April 23. There were 4,747 hospital beds available and 6,642 that were occupied.

Many city and business leaders have been monitoring the University of South Carolina and when the school’s 30,000 students might return to the Columbia campus. Students are currently doing digital distance learning during the coronavirus crisis, and that is set to continue through the summer.

Former longtime state representative and current USC administrator James Smith, who is close to school President Bob Caslen, told the Midlands Coronavirus Task Force that a decision as to when students might return to Columbia is still yet to be determined.

“Our priority is the safety, health and welfare of our students, staff and faculty,” Smith said.

The former Democratic gubernatorial candidate noted a “futures” committee that includes faculty, staff, senior administrators, student leaders and a host of others is working on the various decisions that would need to be made to bring students back to campus. He said that a decision should come no later than mid-June, but that the crisis makes that a potential moving target.

“The virus has a vote on how and when those decisions are made,” Smith said.

The COMET, the regional bus system that serves Richland and parts of Newberry and Lexington counties, has made a number of moves during the coronavirus crisis to keep buses on the road, while at the same time keeping riders safe and distant from one another.

That has included nightly disinfecting of buses, the closure of the system’s main bus station on Sumter Street to encourage social distancing, temporarily halting three of the four Soda Cap Connector routes and going to a more limited schedule (commonly known as a “Sunday” schedule to frequent riders) on most routes.

But the bus system, like many enterprises, has been affected by the slowdown brought on by the coronavirus. COMET CEO John Andoh said April 23 that the system has furloughed 46 of its bus drivers. However, 11 of those furloughed drivers were expected to return to work April 27 for a special program.

“We have had to furlough some of our contracted staff,” Andoh said. “However, we are in the process of implementing a food delivery service, in partnership with the city’s food policy committee and several nonprofit organizations, which we’ll be able to bring some of those drivers back to work. We are using some of the Federal Transit Administration CARES Act funding to cover our costs in providing that, so there’s no cost to the community for us to do that food delivery program.”

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