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COVID rising

Editorial: Time to haul the masks back out, South Carolina

Virus Outbreak California

Cloth masks still reduce the spread of COVID-19, which is high throughout most of South Carolina again. High-quality masks offer significant protection to the wearers as well. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

If you haven’t been paying attention to COVID lately — and how wonderful has it been to not pay attention to COVID lately — it’s probably time to start.

Thirty-two S.C. counties — including Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley — now have high levels of the disease. That’s up from just nine last week, and it means it’s time for most South Carolinians to fall back into the uncomfortable routine that we’ve been trying so hard to forget.

The government isn’t telling anybody they have to do anything, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn’t urging anyone to stay home, and it’s not lecturing us about social distancing or hand washing (which we never should have even considered stopping), but it is advising everyone in high-transmission counties to return to wearing masks indoors and on public transportation.

Those cloth masks will still work if your main interest is reducing community spread, but you can significantly reduce your own chance of infection as well by wearing a good-fitting, high-quality (think N-95 or KN-95) mask.

The agency also says that people at high risk for severe illness — particularly the elderly and those with compromised immune symptoms — should “consider taking additional precautions,” which it doesn’t spell out but which obviously include limiting the time you spend in public.

Another 13, mostly rural S.C. counties are rated at medium, and residents are advised to wear a mask if they have symptoms, a positive test or exposure to someone with COVID-19. And always on public transportation.

The other recommendations — which the CDC advises for people even in South Carolina’s only low-infection county, Allendale — are to get tested if you have symptoms and stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines. For most South Carolinians, that means getting a booster.

“We should take this seriously again,” said Dr. Helmut Albrecht, medical director of the Center of Infectious Diseases Research and Policy for Prisma Health and the University of South Carolina.

It’s more difficult to tell precisely where South Carolina (or any state) is right now since so few people are getting tested at pharmacies and hospitals. But Dr. Albrecht told The Post and Courier’s Tom Corwin that we’re at a place where not taking precautions now may mean “eventually your luck will run out with this.”

The bad news is that the current strain is the most contagious yet, there’s no grace period between infections and the number of infections is soaring. South Carolina recorded 13,800 new infections July 10-16, which is tiny compared to the last time we were paying close attention but, again, doesn’t include all those people using home tests.

The good news is that the virus continues to become less deadly, vaccinations make it less deadly still and we have drugs available that can further reduce our chances of death or even severe infection.

In fact, for most people the biggest problem with getting COVID is the inconvenience, especially having to isolate. That’s still something most of us want to avoid. And for some, it still means feeling awful, facing the prospect of long COVID and possibly having to be hospitalized; Mr. Corwin reports that 465 South Carolinians were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 16 — 55 of them in the ICU and 15 on ventilators.

And of course, there’s death: 13 South Carolinians died last week, dramatically fewer than we were seeing during the last summer surge, but still 13 of our neighbors who are no longer alive because of the disease. A mask seems a small inconvenience to reduce our own and others’ risk of that.

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