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South Carolina's Latest COVID Surge is Flooding Hospitals, Exhausting Medics, and Affecting Children

For children under 12, getting vaccinated against COVID is not an option yet. Doctors say masks are the best way to keep school children out of the hospital.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
For children under 12, getting vaccinated against COVID is not an option yet. Doctors say masks are the best way to keep school children out of the hospital.

Just a couple months ago, it looked like we were out of the COVID-19 woods, didn't it? People were traveling, the bottom halves of faces were brazenly getting some sunshine.

And, as if the pandemic were somehow behind us, even certain public radio news agencies took a naive look back at how far we'd come since a year earlier, when hospitals were full of COVID patients and exhausted healthcare workers were wondering whether the job was still for them.

And now, just a couple months later, masks are back in force, schools are going virtual as Delta variant cases spike like shotgun blasts, and South Carolina's hospitals are, on average, 80-plus percent full of COVID patients.

Melanie Matney, COO of the South Carolina Hospital Association, says that while some hospitals in the state are not as packed as others, 26 (as of Monday) were at or above 90 percent capacity.

Moreover, children's intensive care units, like those of Prisma Health in the Midlands, are maxed out.

Because the Delta variant is different. It doesn't take 15 minutes of exposure to catch, it takes about 10 seconds. And kids, especially the ones too young to receive a vaccination, are catching and spreading the variant in schools, where fights over whether they should be required to wear masks are taking place.

For Prisma Health pediatrician, Dr. R. Caughman Taylor, the answer is simple – masks are "the way we protect [children]."

The frustration in his voice, the exhaustion of spending a year and a half repeating the same message to a varyingly attentive or dismissive state, was palpable at a press briefing Dr. Taylor was part of last week.

In that same briefing, Prisma's chief clinical officer for the Midlands, Dr. Rick Scott, laid out some attention-getting numbers showing how quickly the Delta variant has made its presence known.

On July 2, Dr. Scott said, Prisma Health, in its entirety, had 12 COVID patients. By mid-August, it had 394.
The frustration in his voice was obvious too, as was the exhaustion. Both doctors say their staffs and facilities are handling the latest COVID surge admirably, but Dr. Scott admitted that this wave is tiring the medical staff out.

Matney says the same thing. Regardless of how well nurses and doctors came through the first year of the pandemic, they are being taxed now.

And for the Prisma Health doctors, the combination of beating the same drum –
mask up and get vaccinated if you can – and the exhausting day-to-day of battling a surge that should never have been is causing them to beg South Carolinians to get the vaccine.

If there are encouraging things to focus on at the moment, one is that vaccination numbers are higher in the state this month than they were last month. Data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) show, on average, around 3,000-plus vaccinations per day in July. Daily vaccinations in August have held steady above 8,000.

There also is the fact that fewer ventilators are in use for COVID patients. Matney says that as of Monday, only 34 percent of ventilators in the state were in use.

That's attributable to vaccinated patients who've contracted breakthrough infections. Almost 90 percent of hospitalized COVID patients in the state are unvaccinated, according to DHEC, as of Aug. 17. There are about 1,900 hospitalized COVID patients in South Carolina currently, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

DHEC also reported as of Aug. 17 that, where vaccine status was available, nearly 80 percent of hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID were among the unvaccinated or not-fully vaccinated.

In an email, DHEC said that while it could not provide specific details about any individual death, cumulatively “64.8 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state have had an underlying condition.”

More information about comorbidities and COVID can be found here.

The Centers for Disease Control maintains that vaccination "may make illness less severe for those who are vaccinated and still get sick. The risk of infection, hospitalization, and death are all much lower in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated people."

But while current numbers and trends are relatively easy to come by, knowing where this is all heading is not.

“Back in the spring of 2020,” Matney says, “all these very smart people came up with these … projections on when everybody was going to hit a peak. There’s still a lot of forecasting out there. I think what we [in South Carolina] have seen is what’s going on in other states – that this surge in the summer was a six-to-eight-week surge. The complicating factor right now is that schools have started.”

So trying to guess whether we’re nearing an apex, or if this surge that’s hitting us just as schools open will start to wane within eight weeks is not so easy to do, Matney says.

What she is more comfortable saying is that, in general, as cases grow, so do hospitalizations and, subsequently, so do deaths.

“It’s sequential,” she says. “As the number of cases rises, we know that the number of hospitalizations is going to rise a week later.”

· Information on finding a vaccine in South Carolina, and a hotline to ask vaccine questions, are available on DHEC's website. Click here.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.