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Coronavirus cases spike in Greenville as SC cases beat DHEC projections

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Fetter Health Care medical staff conduct a COVID-19 test at a mobile screening site at Royal Missionary Baptist Church on May 4, 2020, in North Charleston. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Coronavirus cases have ticked up in South Carolina in recent days, especially in Greenville County, and data shows it's not just because the state is testing more people.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control recorded 1,768 new cases of COVID-19 in the week of May 24 to May 30. It had projected only 1,300.

The figure far outstrips previous records set in the spring; 1,290 was the highest number of cases seen in a single week in March and April. DHEC now expects South Carolina cases to top 15,000 by June 13, roughly 1,000 more than a recent prediction.

Much of the growth in cases comes from Greenville County, where new cases over the past few days are more than three times the amounts seen in Richland and Charleston, the state's second- and third-largest counties. 

Dr. Linda Bell, the top epidemiologist with DHEC, said the agency is unsure why Greenville is seeing many more cases than other counties. But she said Memorial Day celebrations likely contributed. 

"We think that we are seeing some of the consequences of these social gatherings throughout the state," she said in an interview Monday.

Southeastern states are among those still seeing a growing number of COVID-19 cases, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

Why that is happening is unclear, Nuzzo said. One possibility: After striking many of the country's urban areas, the virus is on the move and transmission is taking off. In states like South Carolina that opted to reopen earlier than most, people may have a false sense that the coronavirus' spread is slowing, she said.  

"The risk of becoming infected hasn't actually changed," Nuzzo said. "Now it's really on individuals to make decisions about what exposures are worth it."

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The single best way to stop the spread is to stay home if you are sick, she added. 

A spokeswoman for DHEC said part of the reason cases have risen to daily records over the weekend may be due to aggressive testing in nursing homes. The health department said it finished testing all 40,000 nursing home residents and staff members in the state last week.

South Carolina began seeing a dramatic uptick in the number of tests conducted per day in early May. DHEC committed to test 2 percent of the population — or about 110,000 people — each month. Shipments of supplies from the federal government are contingent on South Carolina hitting that mark. 

But the rising number of cases in South Carolina is outpacing what DHEC projects, even accounting for more testing being done.

The spokeswoman said contact tracers are tracking down every person who tests positive for COVID-19 in the state, and DHEC is using that information to investigate why certain areas are seeing an uptick.

South Carolinians should keep wearing masks, washing hands and keeping a distance of at least 6 feet, she said.

South Carolina has yet to see a 14-day stretch of declining cases, which President Donald Trump's administration set as a guidepost for states to begin reopening.

The state’s home or work order expired May 4, allowing businesses to begin opening again. 

Andy Shain contributed to this report.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, is a reporter covering health care and technology for The Post and Courier's business desk. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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