COLUMBIA - As South Carolina battles an unchecked rise in COVID-19 cases spurred on by the delta variant and dwindling demand for vaccines, state health officials are urging people to follow new federal guidance on wearing masks indoors.
But one of the Department of Health and Environmental Control's top public health experts shied away Wednesday from recommending mask mandates, which lawmakers have already banned from public schools this year.
"Our message will stay the same, and our job is to offer the best recommendations to protect the people of South Carolina," State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell told reporters. "Ultimately, DHEC will adhere to state laws."
The health agency's stance comes a day after education officials said the state can't follow new CDC guidance recommending indoor mask use in schools regardless of vaccination status. State legislation went into effect this month that bars school districts in South Carolina from using appropriated funds "to require that its students and/or employees wear a face mask."
On Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster doubled down on his own support of the ban, noting that schools can't get through any hypothetical loopholes by using other funding to enforce such a mandate.
McMaster added that some experts have failed to listen to parents in the debate around how to best keep schools running during the pandemic. He has previously called it "the height of ridiculosity" for a school district to require a mask over any parent's wishes that their child go without one.
Sumter School District Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox said Wednesday it is important, collectively, to "do everything we can to safeguard all of our children and staff."
"As we continue to remain in compliance, students and staff have the option to wear face masks," she said. "We must all do our part to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and other variants in our schools as well as our community."
Vaccination rates remain among the lowest in the country, with just more than 44% of eligible residents having been fully immunized, according to data updated Monday by state health officials. Those rates look even gloomier in Sumter County, where the state's 15th-most populous county has the fourth-lowest rate of vaccination.
Lee County has the sixth-lowest vaccination rate in the state, while Clarendon County is about in the middle of the state with the 20th-lowest rate.
And COVID-19 cases are climbing again in South Carolina, with a 92.6% jump in cases during the last week, the agency reported.
Since South Carolina first shut down in March 2020, the Republican governor has resisted calls to implement a statewide mask mandate, instead emphasizing personal responsibility in following public health suggestions and getting vaccinated. He has repeatedly defended the state's approach to keeping most businesses open and limiting other virus restrictions.
"If we listen to the national press and some of the so-called experts in their dissemination of hysteria, hyperbole and exaggeration, everybody would be scared to death," McMaster said. "I say do not listen to that. Listen to competent sources."
According to the CDC, there has been a rise in breakthrough cases - ones where fully vaccinated individuals test positive for COVID-19 - that is likely being fueled by the delta variant.
Schools in the state are awaiting updated safety guidelines from the state's health agency, which says it will put out the recommendations later this week.
Districts can still provide masks for students to wear, Bell noted Wednesday, though they can't compel students to put them on. Health officials are also working with schools on vaccination clinics to get students fully protected before the start of the semester, Bell said.
The new federal guidance also recommends that even the vaccinated should return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the country where the delta variant is rapidly spreading. That includes 41 of South Carolina's 46 counties so far.
In Sumter, Dr. David Justice, chief medical officer and psychiatrist at Tandem Health, attributed the state's increasing rate of transmission to the delta variant. He said many of the reasons he hears from people not getting the vaccine are based on misinformation, including rumors of side effects and that it wasn't properly tested, which "are incorrect."
Still, towns and cities looking to reinstitute their own mask mandates must also navigate around an executive order issued by McMaster in May, which said that local governments can't use any of McMaster's prior COVID-19 emergency declarations as the basis for a mask mandate. Those governments will have to find justification for such mask rules within their own ordinances.
The 74-year-old governor said he himself would not follow the federal guidance of masking indoors, given that he is vaccinated and already contracted COVID-19 at the end of last year.
Sumter Mayor David Merchant said with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, he and city council will discuss the idea of making a resolution encouraging the public, both unvaccinated and vaccinated, to wear face coverings.
Merchant said he did not think a mask mandate, as other U.S. cities have reauthorized, will be necessary. He said he has seen Sumter residents wear masks in stores and businesses without a mandate. However, that will also be a topic to discuss with council.
"What I've seen is more people wearing masks voluntarily," he said. "I think a lot of folks are more comfortable now than maybe a year ago whenever masks were a social norm."
Manning Mayor Julia Nelson said city council has not planned to discuss the updated guidelines from the CDC as of Wednesday.
Nelson said the council has followed the CDC's guidelines throughout the pandemic, even when they made the decision to lift their mask ordinance in May. Council then approved a resolution to encourage residents and visitors to continue wearing face masks in restaurants and other establishments.
Nelson said she couldn't make an official statement on behalf of the City of Manning, but she did say that council feels "comfortable" with the city's current resolution and asks that residents continue to take safety precautions against the virus.
"I think it's going to be really important," she said, "for people in this interim of any form of decisions being made to take personal responsibility."
From The Sumter Item, Shelbie Goulding, Kareem Wilson, Bruce Mills and Kayla Green contributed.
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