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COVID surges in Beaufort

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Beaufort Memorial, City encouraging citizens to get vaccinated 

 By Mike McCombs 

As COVID numbers continue to climb again across the state of South Carolina and the nation as a whole, Beaufort is right there in the middle of the surge. 

The statewide numbers reported Tuesday by the S.C. DHEC, reflecting Sunday’s data, indicate there were 1,651 positive new cases and 414 probable new cases statewide. The positive test rate was a staggering 19.7 percent, a number similar to those at the pandemic’s prior peak in January 2021. 

As of Sunday, Beaufort County’s seven-day average for new cases was 88.7, a 91 percent increase over a week prior, when that number was just 46.3. Another week prior to that, the number was a paltry 11.6. 

According to a heat map published by S.C. DHEC, as well as a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Beaufort County is now officially a COVID “hotspot.” 

As of Monday afternoon, Beaufort Memorial Hospital had 23 COVID patients, including six in the ICU, all on ventilators. None of those hospitalized patients have been vaccinated. 

The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, in combination with an unmasked, nearly fully open economy and a reluctance of a large segment of the population to get vaccinated have formed a perfect storm. 

“A virus’ job is to survive. Adapt, mutate, replicate, in order to survive,” Beaufort Memorial Hospital President and CEO Russell Baxley said Monday. “That is what this particular bug has done, continued to mutate and infect. Both that and letting our guard down has played into the spread of the Delta variant and thus a surge in cases. Low vaccination rates play a big role as well.” 

According to Baxley, the hospital’s ability to function properly has not been affected and he doesn’t believe it will be affected in the future. He says the hospital is prepared to receive more COVID-19 patients. 

“The last year and a half has taught us a lot, we feel well prepared in terms of PPE, additional ventilators, and COVID-19 treatment protocols,” Baxley said. “Right now the situation is manageable, but not what we want, and we do not want it to get worse. We do not want history to repeat itself. The best thing people can do right now is get vaccinated if they are not and follow CDC guidance as it is updated.” 

Return of the mask? 

While his COVID-19 State of Emergency was in effect, S.C. Governor Henry McMaster’s executive order prohibited local governments from enacting their own mandatory mask rules or mandates. However, the State of Emergency expired in June, and local governments could move toward reinstating such rules to help stop COVID’s spread. 

Earlier this week, Beaufort County Council Chair Joe Passiment reportedly told The Island Packet he would support a countywide mask mandate if the council again brought up the issue. 

Just a few days ago, City of Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray didn’t endorse a local mask requirement, but still indicated it could be a possibility. 

“As the numbers rise, those are the conversations us in leadership are having,” Murray said. “In the meantime, I’m encouraging people to go get their vaccines. If people don’t want additional restrictions and they don’t want masks, now is the time to go get vaccinated. If numbers continue to increase, all options are back on the table.” 

On Thursday July 29, the City of Beaufort sent out a release encouraging citizens to get vaccinated and recommending that both customers and employees of retail locations and other businesses open to the public wear masks when inside a building. 

The City also announced a requirement that any visitors to City facilities, including City Hall, wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines. These were to begin Monday, Aug. 2. 

Like Murray, Baxley hopes Beaufort can avoid returning to mask mandates and emphasizes the importance of getting vaccinated. 

“… Mask mandates mean we have regressed back to the worst of it,” Baxley said. “That said, BMH continues to enforce universal masking at its facilities and we believe that everyone should use good judgment, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, and mask when appropriate, following CDC guidance.” 

Even if local leaders decide it’s necessary to return to masking, the wild-card is McMaster. The Governor could take action at some point, and that may frame or limit what individual counties or cities do. 

For comparison’s sake, New York City just mandated that proof of vaccination is now required to dine indoors or use a gym. Conversely, in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott just signed a bill prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of vaccination to do business. 

Getting vaccinated 

Like Baxley and Murray, most officials agree – more people need to get vaccinated. The recent surge has had some effect on the numbers, but not much. 

“We have seen a small uptick in those wanting the vaccine,” Baxley said, “but not enough to make a dent in the 50 percent still unvaccinated in Beaufort County.” 

Roughly 45 percent of South Carolina residents ages 12 and older have been vaccinated. In Beaufort County, the number is almost 50 percent. 

Baxley said health and government officials must continue to educate the community and make the vaccines convenient and accessible at all times. 

“The vaccine has proven to be effective and safe,” he said, “and pushing vaccination rates higher is what we need to do right now.” 

Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com. 

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