Sumter may see almost 600 cases of virus by May


Michelle Logan-Owens has seen a lot in her medical career in Sumter. This coronavirus is different.

Joining Tuomey Hospital 27 years ago and becoming CEO in 2015, since she took the helm the hospital has been through the 1,000-year flood that year, a major merger that gave it its current name of Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital, an ice storm and threats from multiple hurricanes.

Hospital staff and medical personnel sleep on-site during disasters, but a hurricane comes and goes in a predictable amount of time.

"This level of intensity has no end in sight. We're not sure when this could end ... That's a different weight to shoulder," she said Thursday during a live Zoom interview with The Sumter Item.

Logan-Owens said based on current projections from state public health officials, Sumter County may see almost 600 confirmed cases of this new, highly contagious coronavirus, which is a respiratory illness, within the next three weeks. The state is projecting 8,751 statewide, as analyzed as of March 29 by a Tuomey biostatistician from publicly reported models, falling in line with earlier reports from DHEC showing more than 8,000 cases by May 2.

That projection for Sumter includes almost 70 who may need hospitalization and 12 who need an ICU bed, she said.

In most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, however, especially older adults with existing health conditions, it can cause severe complications such as pneumonia that can be fatal.

There have now been confirmed cases in all 46 South Carolina counties. On Thursday, an additional five deaths and 261 new cases were announced by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, including 18 cases in Sumter and three each in Clarendon and Lee counties.

All five South Carolinians whose deaths were announced Thursday were elderly individuals who had underlying health conditions. One of the now 31 people whose lives have been claimed by the virus was an otherwise healthy middle-aged person.

To continue to prepare for a peak that is still on the horizon, Logan-Owens said administration at Tuomey is looking for ways to open closed units for more COVID-19 patient space.

Elective procedures have been postponed to clear up surgical beds, but that has meant layoffs and furloughs for staff across Prisma Health facilities, including at Tuomey.

Logan-Owens said she plans to bring some of those people back, such as physical therapist assistants or athletic trainers, to retrain as nursing assistant support staff to manage surge capacity.

"This is one season in our lives, and it will pass. If you look at the entirety of our lives, even if we have to do this for eight to 12 weeks, this is a small sacrifice to make so we can get ourselves back to good health."

Statewide, as hospitals and health care leaders such as Logan-Owens and Tuomey prepare for the expected increases in cases, state lawmakers are preparing for increased burdens on the economy.

Both the state House and Senate plan to return for one day next week with the plan to pass a continuing resolution allowing the state to spend money at this year's levels if a new budget isn't passed by July 1, which seems unlikely given the impact the pandemic is projected to have on the state economy and its $1.8 billion surplus.

The General Assembly then plans Wednesday to pass a resolution determining what matters they can take up after session ends May 14, according to letters Thursday from House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler via The Associated Press and from state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter.

Lucas, R-Hartsville, told AP the House chamber will be thoroughly cleaned before Wednesday's session with chairs placed along the walls and members allowed to sit in the balcony so everyone can stay farther apart. They haven't convened since mid-March.

The House balcony and the lobby outside the House and Senate chambers will be closed to the public, but reporters will still have their regular access, Lucas said according to AP.

McElveen voiced concerns over meeting at the Statehouse. He wrote a letter to Peeler on Wednesday asking to postpone returning next week until closer to the May 14 deadline, when cases may have peaked or more information will be known about the virus.

In a Thursday letter to Gov. Henry McMaster, he wrote the state Constitution allows the governor to issue a proclamation to appoint a "more secure and convenient place" to meet "if the casualties of war or contagious disease" make it unsafe to meet at the government seat. He suggested Colonial Life Arena or Williams-Brice Stadium as potential venues to practice the social distancing guidelines public health officials and McMaster himself has been urging.

"Knowing that the Senate must return before May 14, the state's public health professionals advise that this work be done as soon as possible and as quickly as possible," Peeler wrote in a statement to AP.

The Wednesday session of the General Assembly comes the day before an April 9 meeting of the Board of Economic Advisors to revise its estimates on how much money the state will have to spend this budget year and next budget year, which starts July 1.

Eventually, lawmakers will have to sift through a growing number of issues presented by the virus, including a record number of people filing for unemployment benefits, graduation requirements and other changes to public education as schools remain online and what to do with the items the House wrote in its budget for how to use the nearly $2 billion surplus, which included raises for teachers, road improvements and tax relief.