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SC public health team fighting COVID-19 unchanged, despite director's leave, officials say

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster said Friday the temporary departure of the director of South Carolina's public health agency, who took leave to get his blood pressure under control, will not affect the state's response to one of the world's worst health disasters in a century. 

Rick Toomey, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, told employees in an email Thursday he's taking a leave of absence to get his blood pressure down. 

"Some of you are aware that several weeks ago, I checked into the Chest Pain Center at MUSC. All cardiac tests were negative, but my blood pressure was very elevated," he wrote in an email provided Friday to The Post and Courier. "My primary care physician adapted my blood pressure medication. Unfortunately, those changes have not achieved the desired results."

The email went out at 6 p.m. Thursday, shortly after DHEC announced the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Carolina had risen to 456, including nine deaths. On Friday, the agency reported four additional deaths and 83 cases, attributing the spike to a two-day backlog in DHEC's lab due to a shortage of supplies needed to process the tests. 

The agency estimates there could be more than 8,000 cases by early May, based on the spread so far. 

Toomey has not contracted the coronavirus, said Jennifer Read, DHEC's chief of staff. He is expected to be absent for two to three weeks for what she called an ongoing medical condition.

His decision was first reported by The State newspaper of Columbia.

Toomey called McMaster on Thursday to tell him he was taking some time off. McMaster is confident in the agency's leadership team fighting the pandemic, his spokesman said Friday. 

"The governor told him to rest up and get better and get back as soon as he can," said his spokesman Brian Symmes. "The governor also has complete confidence in the staff at DHEC and the team responding to the coronavirus in South Carolina. Toomey is unwell and the governor absolutely believes he needs to take care of himself."

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In the interim, Marshall Taylor, the agency's chief attorney, will serve as acting director. He has been in that position twice before, from January to May 2015, and in January and February of 2019, when the state Senate confirmed Toomey as director.

Nothing has changed in the leadership team put in place three weeks ago for fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, said Read, who's also the deputy commander of the coronavirus team. 

"That structure and the staff leading our response effort remain unchanged," she said.

The team's commander continues to be Nick Davidson, director of the agency's public health division. The team's 10 other members include Dr. Linda Bell, the state's chief epidemiologist, whose team title is "subject matter expert."

While Toomey is the face of the agency, Bell has been the lead figure for the agency's coronavirus response, both in public news conferences and telebriefings with reporters, and in private briefings with lawmakers. Toomey has participated in some of the briefings, most recently on a phone call with reporters Wednesday. 

The agency tasked with protecting the health of the public and the environment is among the largest in state government, with more than 3,000 employees. Its health duties alone are vast. Beyond detecting and controlling diseases and operating the state lab — the functions used in the fight against COVID-19 — its health responsibilities include inspecting restaurants, helping people quit tobacco addiction, screening newborns for health disorders, and licensing and certifying both healthcare facilities and emergency responders.

SC hospitals are running short on protective gear, test swabs as coronavirus outbreak expands

Before becoming DHEC's director, Toomey was a longtime hospital administrator. Taylor's background is environmental law.  

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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