South Carolina's 1st COVID hotspot plots a return to normal
Two years ago, panic gripped this Midlands city of more than 7,000 as an invisible threat marched in and began to spread.
When South Carolina announced the first two coronavirus cases on March 6, 2020, rural Kershaw County was a surprising name on the list. But within days, Camden — a historic town of deep pockets, horse races and galas about 30 minutes northeast of the state capital — had become the unlikely ground zero for South Carolina's COVID-19 outbreak.
Businesses shuttered as case numbers ballooned. The local hospital scrambled to find protective equipment. Small-town gossip focused on triangulating how a virus first detected in China had reached Camden and who might be infected. Social media rumormongers warned the county borders would be shut down to contain the virus.
Local officials — themselves starved for information and answers — held press conferences to instill a sense of calm.
"There was a palpable sense of fear," recalled Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter.
But today, if you took a stroll down Camden's Broad Street, all that might feel like the distant past.
Locally owned shops and restaurants in the downtown district are open again, including a few new ones. Parked cars line the once-barren street, and patrons stroll the sidewalks without masks or thought of social distancing. Neighbors can again look forward to events like March's downtown Irish Fest or April's Carolina Cup horse race.
The city has finally shrugged off the stigma of terms like "hot spot," "outbreak" and "superspreader event" that it bore in early 2020. As much as anywhere, Camden reflects the nation's collective fatigue from two years of avoiding the virus and its desperation to chart a path to normalcy.
"We're not in a pandemic anymore," said Russell Brazell, a Kershaw County councilman who opened a new coffee shop and toy store on Broad Street along with his wife in November. "We're in an endemic."
That's the attitude of many in Camden, and in South Carolina at large, as case numbers from the omicron variant fall, coronavirus precautions wane, and health officials scale back efforts to test residents and report the results.
People here are largely through with wearing masks, foregoing gatherings and even hearing about COVID-19 case counts, even if it is widely recognized the virus isn't going away any time soon — or perhaps ever.
They aren't alone. Public health authorities are also loosening their recommendations, transitioning to a new chapter in the pandemic: accepting that COVID is a part of life now.
"We all have to shift our mentality," said Dr. Brannon Traxler, public health director at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. "I think the first part of doing that for many of us is accepting that COVID-19 is here to stay to some level."
'IT WAS EERIE'
That mindset would have been hard to fathom in the pandemic's earliest days, when the virus was treated as a short-term emergency, a storm to ride out, not a permanent fixture.
Kershaw County took the first hit. Eight of the state's first 12 cases surfaced around South Carolina's oldest inland city, a well-manicured town of red brick buildings and church spires, where every other sign points the way to a historic site or museum.
Over the next month, 170 people in the area would test positive for the novel disease. On March 25, Jack West, 71, a well-known lobbyist and the son of former Gov. John West, was the first Kershaw County resident to die, sending shockwaves through the state's political circles.
Even without much help from the state's health department, small-town sleuths tracked the area's first cases back to social gatherings of the city's donor class.
Other gatherings, such as funerals, fueled the virus' spread, officials said.
"Nobody was supposed to know who had it, and everyone knew who had it," Carpenter said.
Local officials mobilized just as they would for a natural disaster.
Soon, Camden issued a 10 p.m. curfew and became one of the state's first cities to pass a mask mandate. Churches canceled Sunday services. Schools closed.
Even the Carolina Cup, a horse race that brings 30,000 revelers to Camden every spring, got the ax — for just the second time in its 86-year history.
The lockdown was abrupt. Connie Beccue, 68, who owns an antique shop on Broad Street, returned one morning to the hospital where her husband was recovering from emergency surgery to find the doors closed to her. A guard at the entrance said the facility was locked down because of the new virus. She would never see her husband in person again. He died two months later.
Downtown Camden became a ghost town.
Carpenter said the episode reminded him of living in Gainesville, Florida, during the summer of 1990 as a serial killer, nicknamed "The Gainesville Ripper," hunted college students.
"It was eerie," he said. "There was nowhere to go."
In Camden, a city with no daily newspaper or local TV stations, Carpenter initially struggled to provide reassuring messages to residents. He saw a need to dispel social media rumors before they sparked panic.
He set up a 24-hour call line to answer residents' questions about the virus. He eventually started a video series on the county's social media pages, posting short clips of himself speaking directly to residents from his office — his own version of President Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats."
Still, locals could feel a stigma growing around the region as they read about Camden's peculiar outbreak in state and national news outlets.
Vincent Sheheen, Camden's state senator at the time, recalled how colleagues would keep their distance from him when he traveled outside Kershaw County for court or Senate sessions.
"People weren't rude, but it was pretty clear that when I walked in the antenna went up," he said. "Hell, I felt a relief — it's sad to say — when other parts of the state's (coronavirus) numbers exceeded ours."
Over the next two years, DHEC would record more than 21,000 positive cases in Kershaw County (population 65,000).
More than 240 residents would die from COVID-19 — a number that Carpenter believes would garner far more attention if it were attributed to any other cause, like a natural disaster.
Today, Kershaw County records about 17 cases a day — figures that would have caused alarm in March 2020 but produce only shrugs now. At its peak, this winter's omicron surge was producing 29 times more cases in Kershaw County than the area's initial outbreak in 2020.
"It kind of creates this mental fatigue," Carpenter said of the virus, which has sickened more than 1.1 million people in South Carolina and claimed nearly 17,000 lives.
The change in attitude is a testament to humans' ability to live with new dangers, said Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia who wrote "The Psychology of Pandemics" shortly before this one began. In some ways, he said, the coronavirus pandemic is unique for how long people tolerated restrictions and pushed through their fatigue.
The current shift toward leaving COVID behind is also part of a pattern in human history, Taylor said; after the Spanish flu in 1918 and cholera outbreaks in the 1800s, people also seemed to just move on.
"History tells us people bounce back. They forget about the pandemic, and they move on with their lives," Taylor said. "It was almost as if it was forgotten at the community level, although it certainly touched individuals. And I'm thinking this is looking similar to COVID."
Even DHEC and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have taken steps in recent weeks that acknowledge the coronavirus won't be defeated altogether. Instead, their new recommendations are written for a world in which COVID isn't going away.
Public health officials say they are ending a two-year emergency response and beginning to treat the coronavirus as yet another infectious disease, like the flu.
DHEC is telling schools without many cases that they can stop tracking who has been exposed to the virus.
The agency, which has run or sponsored more than 100 COVID testing sites most days, is scaling back its efforts. The agency says at-home tests are now a better tool for containing the virus because they offer instant results.
And it is ending its practice of publishing daily data on the number of new cases and fatalities.
Weekly updates are coming in their place, not unlike the agency's weekly reports on the flu. With testing efforts curtailed, Traxler, the state's public health director, said case numbers would not carry the same significance they have in the past. Epidemiologists will look instead to hospitalizations and deaths to track the virus's impact on the state.
Federal authorities are taking a similar approach. South Carolinians don't currently need to wear a mask unless they're at high risk for a serious case of COVID, according to the CDC's new guidance, which is based largely on whether local hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed.
It's not yet known how the virus will behave over the long term as a fixture in daily life. New variants could emerge, immunity is likely to wane, and the virus could ultimately ebb and flow seasonally like the flu.
All the same, Michael Sweat, who runs the Medical University of South Carolina's COVID epidemiology project, sees signs for optimism: Research increasingly shows that vaccinations prevent serious disease for the long term, and it will soon be easier to get highly effective antiviral drugs that knock down the disease's severity even further.
"I generally think we're most likely going to see a big change in the coming year, but it's not over and there are going to be outbreaks," Sweat said, adding that the brunt of those outbreaks would be borne disproportionately by those who resist measures like the vaccines.
GETTING BACK OUT
Not everyone in Camden is letting their guard down.
Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford said she still wears a mask most places she goes — and often she's the only one. She said she still gets regular updates from the county coroner about COVID-19 deaths and still sees the virus as a grave threat, especially to Black residents.
She said her ears are sore from wearing a mask, and she misses hugging friends and constituents. But she doesn't believe it's worth the risk to herself and others to act as though the virus is gone.
"I'm serious about this," Drakeford said. "It really bothers me that a lot of folks are not taking it as seriously because people are still dying."
Vestiges of the pandemic still remain in Camden.
Visitors to the Kershaw County government complex can't advance past the lobby until they have their temperatures scanned. Some restaurants still haven't reopened their dining rooms to patrons.
A one-man DHEC free testing site in the parking lot of Roses discount store had no visitors when a reporter passed by around lunchtime on a recent weekday.
Handshakes are mostly back, but some residents still feel more comfortable with fist bumps.
"It's still talked about," former Sen. Sheheen said of the virus. "But now it's like talking about the weather. Is it going to rain next week?"
Far more plentiful are signs of post-pandemic life.
Kids are signing up for recreational sports leagues in droves after a canceled spring 2020 season and low turnout over the past year. Class field trips are returning to Camden's Revolutionary War site.
Social events are back in full swing — a huge boost to local morale.
The United Way's Caring Hearts Ball on Feb. 26, for instance, drew more than 200 people and raised more than $50,000 for transitional housing.
"To be able to see folks that we've talked to on the phone or seen over a computer screen was a great thing," said Kirk Mays, one of the organizers. "Camden historically has been a place where people enjoy each other and they like to be together."
A customer who recently came into Connie Beccue's antique shop on Broad Street was thrilled to say it was her first time out in public since the city's first cases in March 2020.
"Just the idea of getting back out to see people is exciting," Beccue said.
A few days later, as Beccue was decorating her storefront for the city's St. Patrick's Day festival, she took a look at the signs in her shop that still advise customers to wear a mask and keep six feet apart.
Perhaps, she thought, it is finally time to take them down.