S.C. reports highest hospitalizations, deaths from virus since March


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South Carolina reported more people in the hospital and more deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday than any day since the pandemic infected and killed the first person in the state in early March.

As area hospital leaders reported mirrored trends, especially in younger age groups, Gov. Henry McMaster urged widespread mask use in public and threatened high school and college football in the fall if numbers continue to surge.

"This is a disease that is spread by breathing," he said. "Everybody breathes."

The spike in cases started just after the Memorial Day weekend. With the July 4 holiday weekend looming, state Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said she fears unless people take precautions against the virus that have been repeated since March, hospitals will be strained, and more people will continue to die.

"We could see cases rise to the levels none of us could have previously imagined," Bell said.

McMaster spoke at a Wednesday news conference after Bell. While he did not issue new orders, he reminded people he has not lifted restrictions on large crowds, which includes movie theaters, nightclubs, racetracks, concert venues and spectator sports, such as American Legion baseball.

He said he will keep those restrictions in place if numbers continue to rise, which means having fans at high school and college sporting events could be at risk.

South Carolina ranks third in the nation in new confirmed cases during the past 14 days adjusted by population, according to The Associated Press. The Palmetto State trails only Arizona and Florida.

The state Department of Environmental Control reported 1,497 new confirmed cases Wednesday and 24 deaths, a record for virus casualties in a single day. The death toll is now at 759.

Deaths had been lagging other figures that have been alarming public health officials, such as the 19% of tests that came back positive and the record 1,160 people hospitalized from the virus Wednesday.

The number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 across Prisma Health's facilities throughout the Midlands and Upstate has doubled in the last three weeks. According to Dr. Scott Sasser, incident commander for Prisma's COVID-19 response and a national leader in emergency medicine, Prisma, which owns and runs Tuomey Hospital in Sumter, had 65 patients with the virus on May 28. On Tuesday night, there were 204.

Of those 204 patients, the percentage of people over the age of 60 is trending down - from 68.2% to 62.1% - while those aged 20-35 are trending up - from 4.1% to 11.2%.

He said while Prisma currently has enough beds to care for patients and Prisma and other health care facilities statewide have plans to open more beds if needed, the rate of increase in younger cases and patients is "concerning."

The rate of those aged 20-39 who are testing positive for the virus is also increasing while the percent positive is trending down in those aged 60 or older, he said.

The surge in cases is "severely hampering" the ability for DHEC to track cases and try to slow the spread.

Bell said conducting contact tracing when there are more than 1,000 new cases every day - as has been in 11 of the past 13 days - becomes virtually impossible, and that makes it harder to fight the virus by isolating infected people and pockets, she said.

While McMaster has repeatedly said he does not intend to issue a statewide mask mandate, he said municipalities and businesses can.

He also said businesses or people violating the closure order prohibiting large crowds don't have to be caught in the act to face criminal charges. Instead, they could be charged in the future if COVID-19 cases are traced back to them.

"The statute of limitations is infinite," he said.