4 more die in S.C. from COVID-19; Sumter lawmakers Smith, McElveen share thoughts on governor's actions


To further promote social distancing, Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order on Friday mandating anyone who travels into South Carolina from specified hard-hit spots in the nation to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Those areas include the Tri-State Area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut as well as the city of New Orleans.

The order does not apply to airline employees and people performing or assisting with military, health care or emergency response operations.

Violating the three or more gathering or the self-quarantine orders may result in a criminal misdemeanor. The penalty, according to the text of the executive order, is up to $1,000 or 30 days' imprisonment.

As of Friday afternoon, there are 539 confirmed cases in South Carolina, including four newly announced deaths. The patients, who were all elderly and had underlying health conditions, were from Kershaw, Richland, Greenville and Florence counties, bringing the total number of deaths in the state to 13.

Sumter County had no new cases announced Friday, remaining at 10 confirmed cases, and two Sumter County residents who have died from the virus.

A nationwide shortage of the chemicals needed to test samples led to a backlog this week, which has resulted in a lower number of new cases being reported in South Carolina. However, state public health officials said they have recreated the chemicals and are planning to get through an 1,800-sample backlog this weekend, so expect the number of confirmed cases to increase.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health conditions, it can cause more severe illness and complications such as pneumonia that leads to death.

One of the best ways to prevent spread of the virus is to wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time. Avoid touching your mouth and nose, and disinfect commonly touched surfaces, such as doorknobs and phones.

In the same news conference Friday, McMaster held off on endorsing a statewide stay-at-home policy in response to the coronavirus' continued expected spread.

Local lawmakers state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, spoke to The Sumter Item and provided their take on what they describe as the "difficult balancing act" that the state's governor is facing.

Both said they agree with McMaster's actions to date to not place the state on a shutdown but said shelter-in-place is not off the table given the ever-changing landscape with the spread of COVID-19. McMaster, too, has said all options remain on the table.

Earlier in the day, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson issued a non-legally-binding opinion that a governor's order during a state of emergency would preempt municipal ordinances, essentially saying only the governor - not cities or counties - could issue such measures. Columbia lawmakers voted Thursday to start a shelter-in-place order on Sunday, and Charleston’s shelter-in-place started Tuesday.

McElveen indicated that some business owners are in favor of a temporary shutdown while others are not.

"Some folks have the opinion, 'Let's take a slap to the face business-wise over three weeks instead of a potential knock-out punch over three months,'" McElveen said. "But other business owners and workers will say, 'We can't survive with even three weeks without working.'"

To shelter in place or to have people continue to work "is about as close to an impossible question as we have right now," he added.

McElveen noted Thursday's release of new state unemployment insurance claims for last week showed a 1,600% increase, with 31,054 South Carolinians filing initial claims, and that will present a long-term challenge for the overall health of the state's economy and quality of life.

"We're seeing people lose their jobs already and be furloughed and laid off," he said. "In the midst of virus or pandemic, people still have to be able to at least try to support their families. So, like I keep saying, it's a really difficult balancing act for anybody to figure out the right call on this."

He provided a Tuesday-dated letter from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control where Director Rick Toomey said the state is moving from a "disease containment" strategy to a "disease mitigation" strategy based on evidence of continued increasing transmission.

The virus is out there, and it has spread, McElveen said. The goal now is to monitor and eventually reduce the spread in communities, sooner rather than later.

According to DHEC and other health care professionals, that will take residents being vigilant to maintain best health practices to reduce the spread, such as social distancing and maintaining 6 feet of separation.

Smith said he maintains his support of the governor and that McMaster is taking action based on the recommendation of medical professionals.

Many members of the General Assembly and elected officials at the state and county levels are calling DHEC and asking the agency for the latest virus information, Smith said, but the agency is giving McMaster the most up-to-date data and information first so he can make informed decisions.

Smith also emphasized for the public to take heed of additional measures the governor took this week.

Based on guidance from DHEC, confirmed positive cases will continue to increase, Smith said. In a couple weeks, South Carolina could have a few thousand cases, he added.

"The question is if we practice what we've been told and take the necessary precautions," Smith said, "then we could see that curve start bending down. But if we don't, we may have to result to more drastic measures. But again, that is the governor's call. He has the most up-to-date data, and DHEC is obviously trying to keep everybody in the loop."