WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As South Carolina continues to break its own records for the high number of new COVID-19 cases or deaths announced each day, health officials and the governor had strong words for the public Wednesday.
Gov. Henry McMaster spoke alongside Dr. Linda Bell, with the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), from the state’s Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia.
“We must get these escalating numbers under control,” Bell, State Epidemiologist with DHEC, said. “If we’re not careful about how we move about this holiday weekend, we could see cases rise to the level that none of us could have previously imagined.”
Bell explained COVID-19 can be passed from human-to-human by simply breathing. That’s why masks and social distancing are recommended to help stop the spread.
How quickly the virus is spreading is making it hard for DHEC to contact trace, Bell said.
“With cases continuing at this level daily, 1,000 cases one day after the next, after the next, this is severely hampering our ability to conduct contact tracing for cases,” she explained.
She applauded local governments across the state that have enacted mandatory face mask requirements.
When asked if South Carolina can do more to flatten the curve, Bell said absolutely.
“We absolutely can turn the curve around,” she said. “If we had universal use of masks, if businesses supported the recommendations, and limited the number of patrons, but still remained open...but required their employees, their patrons to wear masks -- So certainly there’s a lot more that we can do that’s not being done now that would work.”
The governor urged local governments to tailor restrictions to their cities in an effort to stop the spread. He said he will not enact a statewide mask requirement.
As he has said before, McMaster says people have to use common sense to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Wednesday, he urged people to talk to their friends and neighbors and tell them to wear face masks and social distance.
With the Fourth of July weekend fast approaching, McMaster said gatherings should be limited.
He said it is a crime to violate his executive order preventing large gatherings.
Even if law enforcement are not there to break up the event, the governor said criminal cases could be prosecuted up to a year from now, since there is no statute of limitations for violating his executive order.
While the governor did not take any action on a state level to stop the spread on Wednesday, McMaster warned he would not lift any further restrictions if numbers continue to rise.
Restrictions that are still in place include the closure of movie theaters, concert venues, nightclubs, spectator sports and performing arts venues.
The governor said the future of college sports, high school sports, and going to these entertainment venues hangs in the balance right now.
“I will not remove those restrictions, I will not lift those restrictions...I cannot lift those restrictions, those prohibitions, if these numbers continue to rise,” he said.
Since about two weeks after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, South Carolina has seen high numbers of new COVID-19 cases announced each day.
DHEC has made clear this surge is not just due to more testing.
While testing is more widespread, so is the virus, officials said. They are able to determine that based on the percentage of tests that come back positive each day.
For most of the month of June, South Carolina reported a positive testing rate above 10% and at times as high as 20%. For perspective, even with increased testing at the end of May, the percent positive hovered around 5% or less.
Again, officials say these numbers mean the virus is more widespread.
Some people are not as worried about the spread of the virus because the death rate is lower than previously expected.
However, Bell said she is worried about the death rate and the public should be, as well.
Wednesday, DHEC announced the death of a young adult in South Carolina.
While most young people do not contract severe cases of the virus, they can easily spread it to at-risk groups, Bell and McMaster said.
“They’re young and strong...and chances are the disease will go right through them, they may feel a little ill, maybe not at all,” McMaster said. “But anyone that they come into contact with while they are carrying that disease...maybe just breathing, in close contact with someone from the older generation or someone somehow weakened -- that person is going to get that disease.”
The last time the governor spoke, he pleaded with young people to wear face masks and social distance, because the number of people aged 11 to 30 contracting the virus is rapidly increasing.
“This is a dangerous, deadly disease,” McMaster said. “Follow the rules, wear that mask, keep your distance.”