Governor, health officials: No need to close SC over omicron
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday the lessons state officials learned over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic along with a variant that doesn't seem as serious or deadly means there is no need to shut down school or businesses amid a record number of cases.
The state reported more than 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 on back-to-back days this past weekend — a level never seen even in the sharp peaks of the winter and summer of 2021.
But the governor and health officials pointed out the steep increase in cases has not led to a sharp increase in people in hospitals as vaccines against the virus appear to at least prevent more serious outcomes when someone is infected with the new omicron variant.
"We're not in a situation now where anyone needs to panic. This is nothing like it was a year ago, We've seen this before," McMaster said at a news conference after introducing three Chef Ambassadors who will help South Carolina tourism officials promote the state's unique cuisine.
At about the same time, the state's health board was holding its monthly meeting virtually — a hastily put together precaution for the Department of Health and Environmental Control because of the high COVID-19 numbers.
The message from DHEC's director was similar to the governor. Dr. Edward Simmer said getting vaccinated is key. Currently, 62% of eligible people in the state have gotten at least one shot, while 52% are fully protected.
Simmer also said people need to continue to wear masks and isolate if they are sick or have been closely exposed to someone who is sick until they can be tested.
"COVID is here to stay. We're not going to get rid of it. But working together we can control it. We can limit the impact it has on our lives," Simmer told the DHEC board Wednesday.
Simmer said his staff is watching hospitals closely. While there are still a number of beds available, the number of COVID-19 patients in state hospitals are about 67% higher than a week ago and the number of patients on ventilators rose more than 50%.
The omicron variant is throwing one curveball at the health care industry. The hardest hit age group is from 21-40 years old, which has caused staffing shortages in emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, Simmer said.
One other place health officials have concerns is with severe cases in children. Thirty-seven children were hospitalized this week with COVID-19, one less than the peak last year.
But Simmer said "there is absolutely no need to close schools," agreeing with the governor.
Simmer said schools should take steps like providing teachers and workers with the best quality masks. McMaster also suggested using billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 education relief money coming to the state to upgrade air filtering systems, have rapid testing on site for students and other safety measures.
"There is a better outcome for our students from the educational and socialization standpoint when they are in school," Simmer said.
Simmer warned of a few more dark weeks as the omicron variant continues its rapid spread, even through people who have received three different shots. But he said other countries where the spread of the variant started earlier already appear to be past its peak.
That positive outlook was shared a few miles away where the governor promised reporters there will be room in hospitals for anyone who is sick and urged anyone who has not been vaccinated to talk to their doctor or someone else they trust with medical decisions.
"South Carolina is on a positive path. There's no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy," McMaster said "We just had a great Christmas season. Business is booming. Our path to prosperity is brighter and brighter."