COLUMBIA (AP) — The chief of South Carolina's public health agency is taking temporary medical leave to combat high blood pressure, an absence officials said would not affect response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Also Friday, the newest member of South Carolina's congressional delegation, Charleston Democrat Joe Cunningham, said he had been diagnosed with the virus and had already been self-quarantining for more than a week.
In an email to Department of Health and Environmental Control employees, Rick Toomey said Thursday that he is taking a two-to-three-week leave to treat his high blood pressure, which he said has not been responsive to medication changes since a visit to a chest pain center several weeks ago.
“In order to be part of Team DHEC for the long term, I need to deal with my health in the short term,” said Toomey, 65.
Toomey's leave was first reported by The State newspaper. In his absence, Toomey said general counsel Marshall Taylor would serve as interim director.
Since last year, Toomey has lead South Carolina's public health and environmental authority, the chief agency now charged with coordinating response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the state and analyzing tests for people in contact with the virus. As of Thursday, the agency said there were more than 450 cases in South Carolina, predicting more than 2,650 cases by April 2 and more than 8,050 cases by May 2. Thus far, nine people have died in the state.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Agency chief of staff Jennifer Read said Friday the absence of Toomey — who has regularly appeared and spoken at Gov. Henry McMaster's briefings on the outbreak — was not related to the pandemic and would not affect efforts to mediate it. Several weeks ago, the agency implemented a structure for coordinating emergency response, appointing high-level officials to oversee logistics, finances and communications with state lawmakers.
In a news release Friday, Cunningham said he had tested positive for the virus and had been in self-quarantine since March 19, when the congressional physician told him he had been in contact with another member who had since tested positive for COVID-19. Cunningham said he has not been able to smell or taste anything since March 17, suggested early signs of infection, and would continue to telework from home. Cunningham also applauded House passage of a $2.2 trillion relief package aiming to shore up a U.S. economy and health care system left flailing by the pandemic.
On Thursday, officials said that more than 31,000 people in the state lost their jobs during the first week of economic disruption from the outbreak. Unemployment claims for the week ending March 21 were almost the same number of jobless claims filed over the first 11 weeks of 2020 combined, including a big spike after the temporary jobs created around Christmas.
More economic struggles could be on the horizon. The state's two largest cities — Columbia and Charleston — have passed local “stay-at-home" ordinances that close businesses like nail salons, gyms and barbershops, although McMaster has reiterated he does not think a similar order is needed statewide.
Both Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach have ordered most visitors to leave by the weekend and told all hotels, motels, private rental companies and campgrounds to stop taking new reservations until at least May 1. Existing reservations are to be canceled or rescheduled.
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