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COVID cases in Clemson make residents want to 'draw an invisible line' between them, students

Greenville News logo Greenville News 10/22/2020 Zoe Nicholson, Greenville News
a statue of a person: Resident Jo Steadman gets ready to walk around Clemson Downs retirement community in Clemson. © Ken Ruinard / staff Resident Jo Steadman gets ready to walk around Clemson Downs retirement community in Clemson.

While other parts of the state lift restrictions, some of Clemson's 10,000 year-round residents — who are outnumbered by students nearly three-to-one, according to city officials — are being driven deeper into quarantine as the city becomes a hotspot for COVID-19.

And while university leaders maintain the virus is under control by their strict isolation and testing plan, some residents — including Elaine Masceri — are dubious. 

Masceri lives in Clemson, but, as the university continues announcing hundreds of new positive tests a week, she looks elsewhere to do her shopping and dining.

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She drives about 10 miles to Seneca for her groceries and if she feels like dining out, the square in downtown Pendleton is her choice. Anywhere but Clemson.

"As I see the numbers going up, I'm less and less inclined to go to any venue in Clemson," the 72-year-old said. 

She's not alone.

a person holding a cell phone: Ruthie Millar, Director of Community Outreach at Clemson Downs retirement community shows a photo on her phone of resident Dawson Luke talking with a Clemson student through a virtual video meeting during Covid-19 pandemic in Clemson. © Ken Ruinard / staff Ruthie Millar, Director of Community Outreach at Clemson Downs retirement community shows a photo on her phone of resident Dawson Luke talking with a Clemson student through a virtual video meeting during Covid-19 pandemic in Clemson.

City's largest retirement community on lockdown since March

Clemson Downs, the city's largest retirement community with more than 200 residents, has been easing restrictions for its independent living residents, who represent about half of the community, as cases on Clemson University's campus spiked, according to Executive Director James Hill. 

HIll said that the university's high volume of cases — more than 4,600 in students alone — has not factored into their reopening plans, even though Clemson students are not allowed near residents. 

But while they've been easing restrictions, residents at Clemson Downs were locked down for more than six months, with strict rules on family visitations and excursions into town, Hill said. 

a group of people standing in front of a building: Roger Gambrell, a transportation employee at Clemson Downs retirement community helped deliver groceries to residents during the Covid-19 pandemic through most of 2020 at the 38-acre campus with retired residents in Clemson. © Ken Ruinard / staff Roger Gambrell, a transportation employee at Clemson Downs retirement community helped deliver groceries to residents during the Covid-19 pandemic through most of 2020 at the 38-acre campus with retired residents in Clemson.

Last week, a woman who'd come to pick up her dad for an outing had thoughts to share while Director of Community Outreach Ruthie Millar gave The Greenville News and Independent Mail a tour of the property. 

Millar asked the father and daughter how they were doing.

"Now that this isn't a prison, great," replied the woman. 

Millar explained that while restricting people's access to their loved ones was not ideal, it was crucial in protecting the older residents as COVID-19 cases bloomed statewide and in Clemson, where a spike occurred in mid-June. 

The Downs restricted visitors and all excursions in early March, one week before Gov. McMaster issued a statewide lockdown on nursing homes as the coronavirus took root in South Carolina. 

While Clemson Downs was on lockdown, Clemson has seen 804 reported cases, which is 8% of the city's year-round population.

Hill, the executive director, said the property's distance from campus and student apartment complexes gives residents a sense of comfort. 

"We're a little bit isolated back here ... unless we invite folks in we don't have a lot of company," Hill said. 

And while Clemson Downs has eased restrictions, most have elected to stay quarantined on the property, especially once restrictions were initially lifted in May, Hill added.

a man wearing a hat: James Hill, Executive Director of Clemson Downs, a retirement community with independent Living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care, talks about safety of the residents at the 38-acre campus in Clemson. © Ken Ruinard / staff James Hill, Executive Director of Clemson Downs, a retirement community with independent Living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care, talks about safety of the residents at the 38-acre campus in Clemson.

Hill said one group that took an outing over the summer decided it was best just to stay on the property.

"They were like, 'We're not going back out.' And so most of them self-restricted themselves to the property."

About 70% of Clemson's cases occurred in individuals 50 and younger, according to the state Dept. of Health and Environmental Control. Clemson students who have an address in Clemson are counted in DHEC's numbers and the university's data, but wouldn't be double-counted for the university's ZIP code. 

But of the 52 deaths Pickens County has seen since March, the average age was 79, according to DHEC. 

Younger residents are scared, too

Fran McGuire, a city council member who is in his 70s, said he is scared of the virus' presence in the community and actively avoids certain places, like downtown restaurants. 

McGuire has pushed for stricter rules on business capacity and masks as tests of the city's wastewater show the virus exists at 40 times the recommended levels, per liter of water tested at plants serving the Clemson campus

"The fecal tests have been downright scary," McGuire at a recent meeting.

Clairborne Linvill, a young mother who has two kids in Pickens County public schools, switched to curbside grocery pick-up at Wal-Mart a few weeks ago after seeing the wastewater reports.

"The wastewater results show to me that cases are extraordinarily on the rise ... we're  using the wastewater as a better indicator of what actual cases are, whether or not people are tested is kind of irrelevant to me, if it's showing up that they're (positive for COVID-19)."

Meanwhile, the Pendleton-Clemson wastewater plant, which serves a large section of the city's residential neighborhoods, has had significantly lower virus levels in recent weeks, according to the reports. 

"And when you see that separation of the students over there — everyone living over there is clearly way sicker than we are over here — it makes you want to draw an invisible line in the city and avoid that part of it," Linvill said.

While testing data indicates a high percentage of infections in the student body, university officials said students are "largely asymptomatic," according to a Greenville News report. 

Another young mother, Megan Dittrich-Reed, said her family has maintained a strict quarantine since March because her son is immunocompromised. 

Now more than ever, though, she's worried her husband will pick up the virus at an in-town grocery store. 

"It was less of a concern when the caseload was lower," she said. 

Clemson's chief epidemiologist Corey Kalbaugh said that the university's aggressive quarantine strategy -- which isolates positive students for 10 days and students directly expose for 14 days -- is at the benefit of the wider community. 

"By pulling out so many students, it keeps them from going to the grocery store, for example, and other places where they might be infecting other people," he said. 

Social impact of quarantine

At Clemson Downs, the biggest impact of the pandemic has been on resident life, Hill said. 

Mainly, the Clemson students who visited to socialize with residents, about 80 a week came to the Downs, are not allowed on the property. 

"That's been the biggest impact ... on resident life," Hill said. 

While residents aren't getting to socialize with family or students, the community within the property has relied on one another to stay sane, according to Jo Steadman, a resident of the Downs' independent living apartments. 

"I can wander out in the lobby and mix and mingle with my friends who I know are safe. So it's been a blessing to be doing it," the 88-year-old woman said. 

Steadman also said she feels safer on the secluded property, which sits off Berkeley Drive in the residential part of Clemson. 

"I could not have been in a better place here. And my sons offered for me to go with them and I said, 'No.' I felt like I was safer here," Steadman said on one of her daily walks around the shady parking lot that rings her apartment building. 

The Downs has lifted visitation restrictions for independent living residents, but about 100 people in assisted living are still on lockdown, Hill said. 

The facility is planning small group activities and teaching residents how to use technology — Zoom, FaceTime, Skype — to connect digitally with family and combat loneliness. 

Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at znicholson@gannett.com or Twitter @zoenicholson_

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: COVID cases in Clemson make residents want to 'draw an invisible line' between them, students

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