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Editorial: SC needs a statewide leader to guide us out of the pandemic

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Virus Outbreak South Carolina

MUSC health care providers in protective suiting as they get ready to see patients at the hospital's drive-thru tent for patients who are being tested for COVID-19 at Citadel Mall. AP Photo/Mic Smith

It's become increasingly clear that once we flatten the curve and see a sustained drop in new coronavirus cases, we won't just be able to flip a switch and go back to normal. There will be more cases. The question is how South Carolina responds to them.

No one wants to reopen in a way that causes a spike in new cases that in turn would lead to reimposing restrictions, essentially undoing the hard-won progress we have made fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to reopen as quickly as possible — but also as smartly as possible.

That's why the state needs a new leader or task force that can begin mapping out, explaining and executing a strategy for reopening. It should include widespread testing for everyone with symptoms, contact tracing to notify those with whom a patient has had close contact and an economic restart plan to prioritize which businesses reopen first. Simply put, different kinds of businesses pose different risks.

This isn't just our opinion. MUSC President and CEO Dr. David Cole makes the same case on today's Opinion page. "Our ability to trace and test is crucial to emerging safely from our current reality and regaining a new normal," he writes. "The balance comes in doing this without allowing a second COVID-19 wave to reverse our efforts to get back on our feet."

While we've heard about progress on testing, there has been less talk about when and how some form of contact tracing might be used in South Carolina. It sounds like that could be a perfect role for medical staff that hospitals, including MUSC, have had to furlough. While Google and Apple might be on the cusp of smartphone software that could alert us whenever our phone gets near someone who has tested positive, we're skeptical about the timeline of such a program, which would need to be voluntary. Americans must be vigilant about protecting their civil liberties, even in the midst of a pandemic, and especially when data is gathered by powerful technology companies or the government.

Many experts caution that economic growth will be slow when it returns, because people will be wary of resuming normal activities before there is more extensive testing for the virus — and more clarity over their risk if they leave their homes. Such a system appears nowhere close to deployment in South Carolina, but a new serological test — one researchers are closing in on — will help a great deal by identifying those who already have been infected and fought it off, perhaps with little or no need for medical care.

At a news briefing at the White House Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks there will be an increase in infections whenever restrictions are relaxed. 

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“I would be so surprised if we did not see cases," he said. "The question is how you respond to them.”

One of the greatest challenges facing Charleston and South Carolina will be restarting its tourism industry, which has suffered massively as people stay at home. More than 20,000 workers, about two-thirds of those employed in tourism-related sectors, are out of work in the Charleston area alone. But opening up for visitors also increases a community's potential exposure. The "stay-at-home" concept works not only on the family level but on the metro level as well.

President Trump soon plans to announce members of a national task force on reopening the country, but the pandemic is hitting different states in different waves, so governors ultimately will decide when and how to ease restrictions.

So it's not as simple as giving businesses a green light to reopen. If the public isn't convinced that it's safe to patronize them, then what is gained? Neither our nation nor our state was able to contain the COVID-19 outbreak when it arrived, but this spring will essentially give us a second chance. Let's get to work now so we make the most of it.

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