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Commentary: Charleston and South Carolina are reaping what we've sown

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Dr. Philip Saul (copy) (copy)

Dr. Philip Saul

I’ve written several op-eds since March on the need for highly expanded, even universal testing, cognizant of the role we each play in the pandemic, the urgent need for mandated public masking and some legislative ideas for using liability exemptions to make it happen. Unfortunately for the people of South Carolina and many other states, until the last few days, it has all gone unheeded.

Now we are really in a mess, with rapid increases in detected cases and hospitalizations. Our citizens have become potential Typhoid Marys who must be quarantined when we travel to places that have taken COVID-19 more seriously. Community spread is so rampant here that I feel certain everyone knows someone who has COVID-19. Our places of worship that are having in-person services are considering closing again, and the reopening committee I serve on for our synagogue is grappling with how and when to reopen. Apologies to those who left the Northeast for the safety of South Carolina — guess it seemed like a good idea at the time. The only “bright spot” is that deaths are not rising along with cases, both because the infected population is younger and physicians have learned a lot about caring for the sickest patients.

It’s not hard to figure out how we went from being so low in the number of cases to so high. Here’s an example. A friend of my wife’s who is defiant about not wearing a mask goes out to restaurants where staff aren’t careful, has people over to her house (we won’t go) and thinks we’re doing too much testing. Now many of her neighbors are infected, and we hope our friends aren’t next. Few stores have required masks and few customers voluntarily wear them. It is clear many people don’t want to wear masks no matter how politely you ask them.

Is there anything we can do? For my wife and me, the answer is pretty simple — get tested for the virus so we don’t have to have a 14-day quarantine and leave for our cottage in Maine. Being mostly retired, we probably would have stayed away all summer anyway. Now we will for sure. But what about those left behind?

It’s not too late and it’s actually pretty simple. We don’t have to close down businesses again, which no one wants to do. Just do what all the states with now low and decreasing rates are doing and science strongly supports: Mandate masks indoors, have our leaders set a good example by wearing theirs and use social pressure to encourage people to wear them. It won’t take that long to work. If everyone started wearing them today, in one to two weeks the new infection rate would come down and, after two weeks, hospitalizations would too. By the end of July, things would look much better.

Some recent progress requiring masks has been made in three of our largest cities — Greenville, Columbia and Charleston — and the state Attorney General Alan Wilson has concluded home rule allows it. However, the virus doesn’t respect city limits, and the lack of fortitude and leadership at the state level will mean a patchwork of protection that many cities are already thumbing their noses at. Since it is clear that most people won’t wear masks until it is mandated, I say to all officials at every level: Do the right thing and mandate masks in public indoor spaces.

Next week, my wife and I will be ensconced in Maine, where the governor and the people are taking COVID-19 more seriously. We’ll still be watching with interest what’s going on in South Carolina, but instead of worrying about ourselves, we’ll be worrying more about all our friends and the Charleston community left to the coronavirus. Good luck with that if our leaders don’t act soon.

J. Philip Saul, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics and a pediatric cardiologist.

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