On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster appropriately declined to renew the COVID-19 state of emergency that has affected the life of every South Carolinian for most of the past 15 months.
It was an appropriate decision not just because he was no longer using his emergency powers to protect the public health. It was appropriate because, as in much of the country, miraculous vaccines have driven South Carolina’s community infection rate into the CDC’s safe zone — below 5% — since May 22. It’s hovering around 2% this week.
It was appropriate because, as in much of the country but not in most of the world, serious COVID-19 infections have plunged, and our hospitals are no longer at risk of collapsing under the weight of the virus.
As is the case in the rest of the world, people in South Carolina continue to get sick and to die, but the number of people dying finally, truly has dropped to the range of flu deaths. (Too many South Carolinians, by the way, die each year of the flu — 882 in 2018 — but that's only about a tenth as many as COVID has killed in 15 months, and we don't upend our entire society in order to reduce flu deaths.)
This time last year, South Carolina was experiencing frightening surges in COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and we were just beginning to understand what a transformative effect mask mandates could have on all three. But even with that encouraging development, we couldn’t have realistically expected to be this much better off today.
Of course, the situation still could change if variants emerge that are resistant to the vaccine, so Mr. McMaster should be prepared to take action again if necessary. Barring that, we hope the end of his emergency orders means state senators will finally pass H.3443, which creates more legally certain authority for extended states of emergencies than the 30 rolling 15-day authorizations the governor has relied on.
While Mr. McMaster handled the pandemic better than some governors, we continue to believe that he should have issued a statewide mask mandate and should not have caved to a minority of loud parents who insisted that they be allowed to send their children to school without masks, even though no one would argue that they have the right to send their children to school naked.
The mask requirement would have reduced the number of South Carolinians who died from COVID-19, and the number who were sickened by it. Allowing schools to continue to require masks probably wouldn’t have saved a lot of lives, but it might have saved a few. And it would have eased the minds of all those parents who weren’t obnoxiously demanding their right to expose other people’s children to infection.
On Monday, Mr. McMaster repeated his claim that South Carolina is better off than most states because of the way he handled the pandemic. From an economic perspective, he is correct: Our economy didn’t suffer nearly as much, and as a result the many South Carolinians who never were infected are much better off than if they had lived in states that endured extended lockdowns. But the rate of infection and death has been much higher here, partly because we didn’t have a statewide mask mandate.
More concerning for the future, South Carolina is among the 10 least-vaccinated states in the nation, with fewer than half of those eligible having received at least one shot and only about 40% fully vaccinated.
And somehow our governor has decided that it’s not the government’s job — and certainly not his job — to encourage people to get vaccinated. Which is sort of like refusing to encourage people to wear their safety belts or stay out of dangerous neighborhoods after dark or look both ways before they cross the street, except worse because not getting vaccinated has a greater chance of hurting the rest of us.
We doubt Mr. McMaster’s silence does a lot to explain our low vaccination numbers, and to his credit he continues to support efforts to make the vaccine more available. But it feeds into the cultural forces that are causing so many South Carolinians to refuse to take this disease seriously, and it’s deeply disturbing.
Fortunately, DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer understands that it is government's job to encourage people to get vaccinated. When he stood next to the governor on Monday, he spoke unflinchingly about his agency’s efforts to reach out to unvaccinated populations and the importance of vaccinations and repeatedly urged everyone to get vaccinated. All of us who are vaccinated should join him in that effort.
We’ve come a long way, but the more people who remain unvaccinated, the more infection and death we'll see, and the greater the chance that we could find ourselves back in another deadly struggle with COVID-19.