WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WBTW) – As South Carolina saw its deadliest day during the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, state health officials are concerned the rise in cases could overwhelm an important resource: Contact tracing.
Health experts say testing and contact tracing are two major tools to fight COVID-19. The Palmetto State is averaging about 1,414.6 new daily cases over the last week.
At that pace, one tool may no longer work.
“This is severely hampering our ability to conduct contact tracing,” said Dr. Linda Bell, an epidemiologist for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
At a news conference Wednesday, Dr. Bell said for each infected person, there’s an average of three other people tracers need to contact and possibly isolate.
“That leaves us with having to interview approximately 4,000 people every single day,” she said.
All those calls warning of possible exposure could overwhelm the state’s roughly 5,000 tracers with DHEC or private companies.
“It’s not a means to control disease anymore if we are unable to contain cases around individual case reports,” Dr. Bell said.
South Carolina reported nearly 1,500 cases and 24 people killed by the coronavirus on Wednesday. Five of the people who died were from Dillon, Florence or Horry counties. Horry County saw a single day record of 228 cases.
The state also saw another record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. DHEC says 1,160 beds were used by people diagnosed or suspected of having the virus, up 91.1% over the last two weeks. Horry County’s hospital bed occupancy is at 87.3%.
The Harvard Global Health Institute says stay-at-home orders are necessary to mitigate COVID-19 in 10 South Carolina counties. Those include Horry, Georgetown and Dillon counties. They are at a risk alert level of “red,” which means there are more than 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people over the last week.
Dr. Bell says contact tracing is more effective when there are fewer cases. It becomes nearly impossible during widespread community transmission because of how many potentially infected people need to be contacted.
Dr. Bell’s warning comes before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, which is possibly the Grand Strand’s busiest every year. DHEC is recommending people “stay safer at home” on Independence Day.
Almost 98% of vacation rental properties in Horry and Georgetown counties are reserved for the week starting on Saturday. That’s according to estimates from researchers at the Clay Brittain Jr. Center for Resort Tourism at Coastal Carolina University.
As counties in Florida and California close beaches this weekend, Gov. Henry McMaster says decisions to do that are up to local governments.
“They have it within their authority to do certain things and they ought to consider those,” Gov. McMaster said. “In order to do it, be sure, don’t go over the line of what would be a violation of someone’s constitutional rights.”
On Wednesday, the governor did not add or remove any restrictions like implementing a statewide mask mandate, which he’s also leaving up to local governments to decide.