COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina health officials vow over the next two months to more than triple the number of coronavirus tests performed in the state.
The promise comes as state officials lift restrictions on businesses and experts saying a further return to normal for schools and larger gatherings can only happen with large amounts of testing and the ability to trace back anyone an infected person had significant contact with in the past two weeks.
“The virus was chasing us. But now we are turning the table and chasing the virus,” Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday as the Department of Health and Environmental Control announced the ramp up in testing.
DHEC wants to test 2% of the population — or about 110,000 people — in both May and June, said the agency’s new Public Health Director Dr. Joan Duwve.
The state has been at the bottom of rates of testing compared to the population. But health officials said that was because the federal government was sending testing supplies to the hardest hit areas.
Many of the May tests will go to nursing homes. Beginning Monday, a private lab will be paid $2.5 million out of the agency’s emergency funds to test all 40,000 residents and workers in South Carolina’s 169 nursing homes.
Those facilities have already seen about 12% of all the state’s coronavirus cases and 28% of all deaths, DHEC said.
Workers and residents can opt out of testing. “We’re not going to hold anyone down and require they be tested,” Duwve said.
Outside of nursing homes, DHEC plans to expand testing into nearly two dozen places it has identified as hot spots or potential hot spots. Several of the free testing clinics that take anyone have already started or will soon in the suburbs northeast of Columbia, where ZIP codes of the highest COVID-19 infections rates in the state are found.
The testing is being paired with a public campaign to try to stem an unusually high number of cases among blacks. African Americans make up about 27% of South Carolina’s population, but 44% of the coronavirus cases and 46% of the deaths, according to DHEC statistics.
Several black legislators are welcoming and sponsoring the testing in and near their district, but say the racial disparity in the virus is just a reflection of bigger problems, like South Carolina’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
“It’s not that African Americans are more susceptible to dying from COVID-19. It’s African Americans have a larger history of health disparities,” said Rep. Kambrell Garvin, a Democrat from Columbia.
DHEC also said it is hiring nearly 1,000 people called contact tracers that will investigate infected people to figure out who they had close contact with in the past two weeks so they can also be isolated and kept from spreading the disease.
Another component, antibody testing to see if someone has had the virus, is still months away and at the moment might not tell much, Duwve said.
“They can’t tell you If you will never get sick again. We just don’t have that information,” she said.
There have been more than 6,900 cases of the coronavirus confirmed in South Carolina, and 305 deaths, according to DHEC’s Tuesday update.
The economic toll of the virus also keeps spreading. Nearly 47,000 people in South Carolina filed new unemployment claims for the week ending May 2, the Department of Employment and Workforce announced Thursday.
It did mark third week the total claims have fallen, from a high of 89,000. But the more than 450,000 unemployment claims filed in the seven weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic started represent around 19% of the state’s workforce.
The state has paid $831 million in jobless claims, the agency said.