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National Guard Aids South Carolina Hospital Amid Virus Surge

FILE - SC National Guard helps at a Florence hospital in Feb., 2021.
Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder
SC National Guard
FILE- Feb. 19, 2021, U.S. Army National Guard Soldiers with 178th Field Artillery Battalion, South Carolina National Guard, assist local healthcare professionals with providing COVID-19 vaccination support to registered patients at the Florence Civic Center vaccination site in Florence, South Carolina. Guard soldiers are now being called on to help Tidelands Health hospital system, where a surge in COVID-19 patients is overwhelming emergency departments.

The National Guard is sending help to a South Carolina hospital system as the current COVID-19 surge overwhelms emergency departments.

About a dozen Guard members will work in two Tidelands Health emergency rooms, three temporary respiratory clinics set up to mitigate emergency volumes and one monoclonal antibody clinic, the coastal hospital system announced Friday.

Two of the system's hospitals in the Grand Strand have topped 100% capacity, with emergency departments serving as holding areas for patients when beds are not available.

Earlier this week, the emergency department at Tidelands Waccamaw held 22 admitted patients — nine of them requiring critical care — due to the lack of beds, according to the hospital.

"As we have throughout this pandemic, our team continues to rise to the challenge and serve our patients with care and compassion," said Ashley Capps, vice president of nursing and operations at Tidelands Health, in a statement. "But we are asking our community to help us help you. Please get vaccinated, and please wear a mask to protect your health."

The state is now averaging more than 5,300 cases per day, nearing the record high case numbers seen in January before the vaccine became readily available. On Friday, health officials reported 6,032 new COVID-19 cases and another 38 deaths.

Prisma Health doctors are worried hospitals across the state will run out of capacity if people fail to heed public health guidelines as South Carolina heads into the Labor Day weekend.

Leaders with the state's largest hospital system previously assured the public that capacity was not an issue during the summer surge's earlier weeks.

But Prisma physicians may soon have to make difficult decisions on who gets medical care if the spike continues, said Dr. Wendell James during a Friday news conference. For example, if five patients all need one available ventilator, health care workers may have to choose between who is most likely to survive, James added.

"The rate of rise for this surge is significantly faster. The numbers are almost where they were with the last ... and they're not turning around." James said. "We have a problem. It is being ignored. It is real, and it has a potential to cause a lot of misery and death."

Other potential drivers of the spike include students returning to schools without virus prevention measures including masking, and thousands of people gathering for fall football games, doctors said.

"If you're not vaccinated, it's clearly not safe for you to be there," said Dr. Helmut Albrecht of Saturday's upcoming University of South Carolina home game against Eastern Illinois.

Doctors have pleaded with South Carolinians for months to get vaccinated to help curb the sickness and death that has exhausted frontline health care workers. Less than half of eligible state residents are fully vaccinated, though 57% have now received at least one dose.

The current surge spurred by the highly contagious delta variant continues to infect more children and younger people, and affect them more severely, than earlier in the pandemic.

Since Aug. 21, the state has recorded the largest number of new cases among people between the ages of 11 and 20, health officials reported Wednesday. Children up to age 10 comprise the second-largest group of new cases.

One pediatric ICU has remained at 100% capacity for five weeks running, said Prisma pediatrician Dr. Caughman Taylor.