South Carolina expands coronavirus testing, particularly in nursing homes, and contact tracing

State - Regional

COLUMBIA, SC (WBTW) – Gov. Henry McMaster says increasing coronavirus testing is important in the next part of reopening the state’s economy.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) says just 1.25% of South Carolinians have been tested for COVID-19. As of Wednesday, 8.9% of the 77,842 tests have come back positive for the coronavirus. Two weeks ago, the state had conducted 44,111 tests and 11% were positive as of April 22.

Over the next two months, South Carolina is trying to get tens of thousands of more people tested to track the spread of the virus.

“The disease has been chasing us, now we’re chasing the disease,” said Gov. McMaster at a news conference Wednesday.

As Gov. McMaster looks to reopen more parts of the Palmetto State’s economy, DHEC is adding more coronavirus testing and contact tracing.

“We’ll have a good bit of isolation and a lot of knowledge, but it is that knowledge that will enable us to open up,” the governor said.

DHEC says all 40,000 people living or working in a nursing home will be tested. About 28% of people killed by the coronavirus in South Carolina lived in a long term care facility like a nursing home. Testing will also be increased at other locations like prisons, jails and group homes.

There’s also a push to test more people without significant symptoms. DHEC says it will have 47 sites for free tests for anyone who wants one.

Many locations will be in rural areas and communities where African Americans have died at alarming rates. As of Tuesday, 44% of South Carolina coronavirus cases were African American patients and 46% of people who died were African American. This is despite African Americans making up 27% of the state’s population.

DHEC director Rick Toomey says the health department will work with hospital, churches and schools to set up free testing sites.

“We will go and we’ll partner with anyone,” said Toomey. “We’ll provide the supplies for the testing site to expand the number, so it won’t be at a cost to the individual.”

A pilot program for these free tests happened in Darlington County on Tuesday. The county is 11th in the state for infection rate with 226.67 cases per 100,000 people as of Wednesday. The pilot program was in Society Hill and 463 drive-thru tests were conducted.

Dr. Joan Duwve, who’s the director of public health for DHEC, says just testing isn’t enough.

“We’re going to need an army of contact tracers to help us respond,” said Dr. Duwve.

DHEC will investigate how many people someone with coronavirus may have infected. There have been 100 more contact tracers added to DHEC’s program, bringing that number to 230.

Dr. Duwve says 1,000 people will be needed to track positive cases once testing is expanded.

“We will need more contact tracers as we begin to diagnose more individuals with COVID-19 and we want to have a rapid response, knowing that people quickly become infectious with this illness,” she said.

DHEC is also reminding people to continue practice physical distancing even with expanded testing and tracing. This is especially true as more businesses and other places reopen where physical distancing may be tougher.

That includes following the CDC recommendation of wearing a face mask in public.

“It’s a very selfless thing to do actually because you’re thinking about everyone around you and taking care of them,” said Dr. Duwve. “From my brief time in South Carolina, that’s the sense I get, that South Carolinians take care of each other.”

DHEC says the free testing program will be funded by the federal government. The goal is to test about 110,000 people, which is about two percent of the state’s population, in May and June.

You can find testing locations on DHEC’s website.

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