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How many SC hospital workers have coronavirus? State officials don't know

The State (Columbia, SC) logo The State (Columbia, SC) 4/1/2020 By Sarah Ellis and Joseph Bustos, The State (Columbia, S.C.)

South Carolina has no count of how many health care workers in the state have been infected by the coronavirus.

That news came Tuesday after one of the state’s biggest hospital systems, the Medical University of South Carolina, announced more than 30 of its employees have been infected by COVID-19, and as health officials have expressed ongoing concerns about the supply of protective medical equipment.

“Health care workers must be protected so that they’re available to provide patient care,” state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said Tuesday at a news conference with S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and other state officials.

While MUSC announced this week that at least 34 employees in Charleston have tested positive for the virus, state health officials do not know how many South Carolina health care workers might be carrying the virus, Bell said.

Rather, individual health care systems are monitoring their own employees, Bell said.

Bell urged people who are not seriously ill to put off seeking medical care to help alleviate the volume of patients in hospitals and medical offices and to limit health care workers’ exposure to the virus.

“There’s a serious concern about the availability of personal protective equipment to satisfy the expectations of health care workers,” Bell said.

Nurses in South Carolina are gravely concerned about both the lack of protective equipment and a lack of COVID-19 testing for health care workers, Kelly Bouthillet, president of the S.C. Nurses Association, said in an interview with The Island Packet of Hilton Head on Tuesday.

“That is not acceptable for nurses who are continuing to take care of patients and getting exposed,” Bouthillet said. “We are definitely in a situation where we think that something needs to be done more.”

In addition to distributing supplies from the national stockpile, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control is prepared to purchase more protective equipment for health care workers as it becomes available. But South Carolina is in competition with other states that also are facing shortages of medical supplies as the coronavirus spreads rapidly.

South Carolina surpassed 1,000 known cases of the virus Tuesday. At least 22 deaths in the state have been attributed to the virus.

South Carolinians should not assume their own community is safe from COVID-19, despite what officially reported numbers might imply, Bell said.

“There are unrecognized cases everywhere,” she said. “People have to practice (safety) measures regardless of what they know about particular cases. Spread is ongoing.”

Speaking with Bell on Tuesday, McMaster announced a new executive order that escalated the state’s measures to slow the further spread of the coronavirus. Beginning Wednesday, a bevvy of nonessential businesses — including gyms, hair salons, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys and museums — were ordered to close, effective April 1 at 5 p.m.

However, the governor stopped short of issuing a shelter-in-place order for residents across the state, though Columbia, Charleston and Mount Pleasant have issued their own local orders.

In recent weeks, McMaster has closed schools, shut down dine-in service at restaurants and bars and, on Monday, severely limited public access to beaches in an attempt to discourage crowds and enforce social distancing.

During Tuesday’s press conference, McMaster was peppered with questions from reporters about why he has not taken the more aggressive step of ordering South Carolina residents to shelter in place, as numerous other states have done. As he has for several days, McMaster insisted that the emergency orders in place have so far been effective at enforcing social distancing to help slow the virus’ spread.

“If there’s anybody out there that doesn’t know they should stay home, then we’ve really been missing something,” McMaster said.

Lucas Larson of The Island Packet contributed reporting.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

What you should know about the coronavirus

The coronavirus is spreading in the United States. After originating in China late last year, the disease has now led to several cases in the U.S., including several deaths.

Officials are urging people to take precautions to avoid getting sick, and to avoid spreading the disease if they do contract it.

Click the drop-down icon on this card for more on the virus and what you should do to keep yourself and those around you healthy.

What is coronavirus?

Coronavirus is an infection of the respiratory system similar to the flu. Coronaviruses are a class of viruses that regularly cause illnesses among adults and children, but this outbreak has spawned a new disease called COVID-19, a particularly harsh respiratory condition that can lead to death.

Health officials believe COVID-19 spread from animals to humans somewhere in China. The CDC believes the virus is now spreading through communities in some affected geographic areas. It spreads among humans by physical person-to-person contact, including via coughs. That’s why health officials urge sick individuals to avoid contact with other people.

For more information, visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are similar to the flu and include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

How can I stop the spread of the coronavirus?

Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, and cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

If you develop symptoms similar to the coronavirus, you should seek medical attention. Stay home from work or school and avoid contact with others. It can take up to 14 days after coming into contact with the virus to develop symptoms.

COVID-19 is a new condition and there’s much about the disease we still don’t understand. For now, taking precautions is the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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