SC health officials warn of fall surge in COVID-19 cases
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As South Carolina health officials warn of a fall surge in COVID-19 cases, the state’s capital city voted Thursday to extend and strengthen its ordinance requiring people to wear masks.
The new rule in Columbia increases the fine for not wearing a mask when required from $25 to $100 and requires them to be worn outdoors in crowded situations like busy sidewalks or waiting to get into a bar or restaurant.
The increase in South Carolina cases mirror trends elsewhere in the nation. They aren’t tied to one or two large gatherings or some other single factor. Instead, health officials think people have become slack about wearing masks, staying 6 feet (2 meters) apart and washing hands frequently, Assistant State Epidemiologist Jane Kelly said.
“I understand that is a boring message. But it is a critical one, especially with cold weather coming,” Kelly said.
Health experts said family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas with groups of people coming from different places are especially prone to spreading COVID-19 if masks aren’t worn and people don’t keep their distance.
“People are underestimating how effective masks and distancing are,” Kelly said.
Columbia City Council members did not discuss the city’s new mask rules at length, but a number of officials have been upset about photos of crowds of University of South Carolina students without masks at outdoor parties or waiting to get into bars and clubs.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said of fighting the pandemic. “But we aren’t going to get here unless we act together.”
Some local governments in South Carolina have not renewed emergency mask ordnances, including Columbia’s suburban neighbor to the west, Lexington. Masks rules there expire Sunday.
Horry County, which saw one of the first COVID-19 hot spots in the state early this summer, let its mask ordinance dissolve at the end of October despite pleas from Myrtle Beach and other cities in the county that the virus spread was not under control.
With the 2020 election over, Kelly said while health officials understand America’s tradition of personal freedom, the debate over whether to wear a mask won’t be included in politics.
Masks should “not be a symbol of political affiliation but a symbol of caring for others,” Kelly said.
South Carolina had one of the sharpest increases in COVID-19 cases over the summer before they were slowed by mask rules, better social distancing and fewer large gatherings, health officials said.
But the decline mostly stopped in late August and in the past two weeks, the number of new cases a day averaged over seven days has risen above 1,000.
The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 has been climbing too in almost every region of the state, according to DHEC.
Hospital beds are more than 80% occupied by people with the virus and other ailments, not leaving a lot of room if COVID-19 cases spike again, health officials said.
The percentage of positive tests continues to stay well above 10%, the level where experts worry the virus is not well contained.
South Carolina has reported more than 171,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,720 deaths since the pandemic began in mid-March, DHEC said.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.