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Doctor: South Carolina Schools Facing More Virus Cases in Fall

Henry McMaster, Linda Bell COVID-19 AP File
Meg Kinnard/AP
FILE - In this Wednesday, July 29, 2020, file photo, South Carolina state epidemiologist Linda Bell, right, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing, as Gov. Henry McMaster, background left, looks on in West Columbia, S.C.

South Carolina schools will undoubtedly face more COVID-19 outbreaks this fall as students return to classrooms amid the delta variant's rapid spread, a top state health official forecasted Wednesday.

Districts could try to keep students and staff safe by implementing widespread masking, social distancing and other public health measures proven to keep virus spread minimal, State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell told reporters. But school outbreaks are unavoidable "with the current track that we're taking," Bell said.

Though only a few schools have begun classes, health officials are already concerned by reported cases. Data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control showed 85 cases recorded among students and staff at K-12 schools in the state during the first week of August.

School officials face a challenge keeping the virus at bay after a state budget proviso went into effect July 1, banning South Carolina educational institutions from using appropriated funds to mandate masks. Most schoolchildren will be face-to-face this fall as lawmakers also capped virtual enrollment to 5% of students in each district.

Bell warned that the state's current virus levels are projected to match or surpass those at the height of the pandemic last winter, before vaccines became widely available.

State health officials have tracked nearly 650,000 cases since the start of the outbreak, with 2,560 new cases and 15 deaths recorded Wednesday. Average case counts are approaching 3,000 daily, according to health department data, surpassing levels seen during last summer's peak. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have also tripled in the last three weeks.

"I have never been more concerned about the health of our state than I am at this time," Bell said.

Bell's remarks came the same day South Carolina exceeded more than 10,000 COVID-19 deaths, a somber marker that prompted health officials to urge the unvaccinated to get their shots sooner rather than later.

About 1.9 million South Carolinians — less than half of the eligible population — have been fully vaccinated so far.

Because the state's vaccination rate is so slow, officials now estimate that more South Carolinians — 80% rather than a previously projected 70% — need to be inoculated to achieve herd immunity, Bell said.

"Until we reach a critical percentage of South Carolinians vaccinated that can stifle COVID-19's spread, we are not out of danger," DHEC Director Dr. Edward Simmer said in a statement. "And the longer that takes, the more time the virus has to mutate into new, harder-to-control variants."