South Carolina is seeing a "true increase" in coronavirus cases that's possibly being fueled by people ignoring safety guidelines like social distancing and wearing face masks, according to state health officials.
In a phone call with reporters Wednesday, Dr. Joan Duwve, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's public health director, said increased coronavirus testing does not account for the higher case numbers seen since last week.
During the final week of May, cases increased at the fastest pace logged since COVID-19 first struck the state in early March, according to DHEC data.
On Monday, 9.1 percent of tests — a record high — were positive.
While that percent of positive number halved to 4.5 percent on Tuesday, Duwve said officials have noted the increase and urged the public to take precautions.
"As we see more people test positive we will see more case spread," she said. "It’s really critical that we all just hunker down, stay home if we’re able. We had a very flat curve for quite a while and now as we’re starting to see increasing numbers of cases, I'm not really sure. This could look like a blip on that curve if we sort of hunker down and do what we need to do, or we could see an increase. It’s up to us."
Data from the Medical University of South Carolina honed in on two areas of the state that are seeing case increases, greater Lancaster County and greater Florence County. Lancaster and Chester counties saw their rate of confirmed cases grow by 5.3 percent from day to day over the last week on average, according to the data.
Florence, Marion, Darlington and Williamsburg counties saw that rate grow by 1.9 percent, the data shows. In Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties the rate has held at around 1.8 percent.
Taking precautions and following public health guidelines like social distancing, wearing a mask when going out, frequently washing hands and avoiding touching frequently touched items are critical to ensure that the cases do not spike again, Duwve said.
On Wednesday, DHEC announced 17 coronavirus deaths as well as 235 new cases, bringing statewide totals since March to 518 deaths and 12,651 cases.
When asked whether it was too soon to reopen the state, which Gov. Henry McMaster did about a month ago, she said the governor carefully deliberated his decision to shut the state down and was equally deliberate in reopening.
Although there has been criticism of McMaster's decision, Duwve said that choice rested only with the governor and that as a public health agency, DHEC did not and does not have the power to take such action.
She also said that part of the responsibility of stamping out the virus lies with each individual and that the people of South Carolina need to bear that responsibility without the government coming in and shutting everything down.
With the state open again, Duwve said it's critical that workplaces such as offices that had employees work remotely during the statewide shutdown should continue to do all they can to promote social distancing.
Whether it's safe to reopen depends heavily on how widespread coronavirus cases are in each community, she said. Areas with low levels of community transmission could be at lower risk, while communities with large numbers of cases circulating could be at higher risk.
Those with individual offices should be fine if they shut their doors, but workplaces with a cubicle-type environment could consider options like having employees come in on alternating days in order to limit the number of people present in the building, Duwve said.
Wearing masks in workplaces should also be emphasized, she said, adding that any enclosed building with large numbers of people and air that recirculates poses an increased risk for coronavirus transmission.
Charleston County officials confirmed that a contractor working at the Public Services Building on Bridge View Drive tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, on Tuesday.
Officials said the contractor does not regularly interact with employees or the public and authorities have implemented a response plan of cleaning that individual's work area, notifying all employees known to have come into contact with the patient, asking them to quarantine if necessary and continuing to offer personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to county employees as well as cleaning frequently touched surfaces.
For several days, residents around South Carolina have held protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer last week.
The protests have resulted in tense standoffs with law enforcement in Columbia, Charleston and elsewhere and turned violent as civilians broke into businesses, smashed windows, set fires, and law enforcement cracked down with tear gas, pepper spray and arrests.
With thousands of people around the state participating in the protests, some worry that the mass gatherings, coupled with use of tear gas and other chemical agents that make people cough, could result in a spike in coronavirus cases.
Duwve said DHEC has not tied any cases to the protests yet but that it would not be surprising to see an increase in cases tied to the demonstrations.
She said that DHEC's priority is to respect everyone's constitutional right to protest while also protecting public health.
If not doing so already, all people participating in rallies should wear masks and distance themselves, Duwve said. Protesters should also be mindful that yelling, speaking loudly, singing and other activities that raise one's voice also increase the likelihood of viral transmission.
Of the 17 coronavirus deaths announced Wednesday, 15 were elderly patients, those over 65 years old. Three were from Spartanburg County, two in Lee and York counties and one each in Aiken, Darlington, Greenwood, Horry, Lancaster, Marlboro, Pickens and Sumter counties.
Two middle-aged patients, between 35 and 64 years old, died in Berkeley and Charleston counties, DHEC said.
Testing across the state continues to expand and as of Monday 230,687 tests had been completed, DHEC said. There are 168 permanent testing sites and more than 100 mobile testing events planned around South Carolina.
Of the state's hospital beds, 70.84 percent were in use, with 433 of the 7,340 beds in use being occupied by coronavirus patients, DHEC said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it is providing funding to the Charleston County Community Development Department to be used to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The County received $1.09 million in Community Development Block Grant funds and a $535,900 Emergency Solutions Grant, officials said.
The money can be used for emergency financial help like paying rent, mortgage and utilities.
Anyone that needs to access money for those reasons should reach out to the Charleston Trident Urban League at 843-769-8173, the Humanities Foundation at 843-284-5109, Origin SC at 843-628-2301 or originsc.org, James Island Outreach at 843-762-3653 or email@example.com, or East Cooper Community Outreach at EECOcharleston.org or by calling 843-416-7120 and and leaving a message.
Those in need of food assistance can call Charleston Area Senior Citizens for their Meals on Wheels program at 843-722-4127, East Cooper Meals on Wheels at 843-881-9350 or www.ecmow.org, or Lowcountry Food Bank at 843-747-8146 ext. 100.
Uninsured people needing help with prescription medication can contact East Cooper Community Outreach at 843-416-7145.
Homeless individuals and families can get in touch with One80 Place
Individuals/Families Experiencing Homelessness by completing a survey at lowcountrycoc.org/get-help. If you don’t have access to the internet, please call 843-737-8357. Origin S received funding to provide homeless individuals with hotel and motel stays. Call 843-628-2301 or visit originsc.org/homeless-prevention.