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SC Gov. Henry McMaster tests positive for COVID-19, undergoing antibody treatment

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Horizon Scientific

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster tours the Horizon Scientific Inc. plant in Summerville with Horizon President Lauren Steiner on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. Steiner explains to the governor the different parts involved in making the company's ultra low temperature freezers that is the required temperature range for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster tested positive for COVID-19 and will undergo an antibody treatment, his office announced Tuesday.

The 73-year-old Republican governor is experiencing mild symptoms, including coughing and fatigue. 

The diagnosis comes five days after first lady Peggy McMaster, also 73, took a routine test that revealed she had the virus. She remains asymptomatic and both are in good spirits, said the governor's spokesman, Brian Symmes.

"Peggy and I urge everyone to be extra careful during the Christmas holiday season,” McMaster said in a released statement. "This virus spreads very easily."

The governor has repeatedly urged South Carolinians to socially distance and wear a mask to stem the spread but has continually stopped short of a statewide mandate. He's also made clear he will not order a return to lockdowns or other restrictions, as his Democratic counterparts have done in other states, amid a surge in cases believed to be fueled largely by indoor holiday gatherings. 

South Carolina's first couple has been quarantining at home since Peggy McMaster's test last Thursday. The governor also took a test then, but his results came back negative at the time. He will isolate for 10 additional days, as advised, while monitoring for any worsening of symptoms.  

His office stressed the McMasters do not know where they contracted the virus, saying there's no way to pinpoint it. 

Both attended a White House Christmas party Dec. 14, and both tested negative before the event. 

His visit a day earlier to an Upstate church drew criticism on social media. The governor gave the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor, to former state GOP Sen. Mike Fair during a church service in Taylors. Photos posted to Facebook and Twitter of the presentation showed neither wearing a mask.

Responding to the criticism, Symmes said the governor wears a mask when in close contact with others for an extended period but regularly takes it off to speak or take photos. 

Both McMasters also met with Vice President Mike Pence on Dec. 10 in Greenville.

Henry McMaster is receiving an antibody therapy at a medical facility in an outpatient setting, prescribed by his personal doctor, his office said.

The treatment has been available since last month when the FDA authorized it for COVID-19 patients experiencing mild-to-moderate symptoms but at high risk of getting severely ill. 

McMaster's age puts him in the high risk category. 

The disease preys on the elderly and those with underlying conditions. Just over 70 percent of the nearly 5,000 South Carolinians who have died with COVID-19 since the virus was first detected here in March have been 70 and older.

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Nearly 80 percent of its victims had other health problems, with heart disease and diabetes among the most common, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The public health agency announced Tuesday that nearly 2,100 additional South Carolinians have been newly diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the total to more than 278,000 since March.  

Because the governor's been quarantining at home and sent all Mansion staff home when his wife tested positive, his diagnosis did not result in anyone else needing to quarantine, said Symmes, who was unaware of any employee testing positive since.

State and federal guidelines define a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a contagious person. People can start spreading the virus 48 hours before they experience any symptoms. Contact tracing investigations by DHEC employees cover that period.

The McMasters join a growing number of public figures to contract the virus.

At least seven other governors have been diagnosed with COVID-19. None have died. Several of the more than 100 state legislators nationwide who have tested positive have died, though none in South Carolina. 

Other South Carolina elected officials to recently test positive for COVID-19 include U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Lexington County and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

Lt. Gov. Pam Evette tested positive in September. She had no complications and returned to the Statehouse later that month to greet legislators during a special session. 

When asked in September whether he would take the vaccine, McMaster told a reporter "when it's available, yes'um," while adding he likely wouldn't be eligible in the initial rollout.

"The governor’s not a priority for some people," he said with a laugh.

South Carolina began receiving shipments of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine last week, following the federal government's endorsement for widespread use. The state expects to receive at least 200,000 doses by month's end, available for front-line medical workers, nursing home residents and some first responders.

By Tuesday, nearly 20,000 health care workers in the state had received their first dose. A second shot is needed 21 days later for maximum effectiveness.

Nursing home residents around the state will start being vaccinated Dec. 28, DHEC said. They are receiving the vaccine by Moderna, which got the federal green light last week and, unlike Pfizer's, doesn't require ultra-cold storage.    

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.