COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — By reopening South Carolina after this spring’s COVID-19 shutdown, more than 100,000 people went back to work in June, according to unemployment figures released Friday.
But also on Friday, doctors in Greenville joined hospital officials in the rest of the state in warning a rapidly increasing number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients combined with nurses and other staff infected during their off-hours in community hot spots leaves them – at most – weeks from a crisis.
“Since Memorial Day we’ve established business as usual. We cannot do that,” said Dr. Wendell James, a Greenville hospital executive who again said simple steps like wearing masks whenever outside a home can end the six-week spike in cases in South Carolina.
Similar warnings have come from hospitals in Myrtle Beach, Orangeburg and Charleston.
The unemployment rate was good news amid an avalanche of ugly numbers recently in South Carolina’s COVID-19 fight. The June jobless rate in the state is 8.7%, well down from the 12.4% rate in May that marked the peak of the shutdown of businesses because of the virus.
It is still a steep increase from the March level of 3.2% before the pandemic began.
South Carolina added more than 105,000 jobs with about 40% of them coming from hotels, restaurants and hospitality as well as professional services like barbers or other occupations that need a license. Both sectors were hit hard by the government-mandated COVID-19 shutdowns.
“This news shows that South Carolina is leading the way in our economic recovery efforts and that we can, and will, overcome any challenge by working together, being smart, and showing compassion for our neighbors,” Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement.
Reopening businesses was a priority of the Republican governor, who says over and over he will not shut businesses again, even as South Carolina’s rate of COVID-19 cases adjusted to population has hovered in the top four in the nation for the past month. The state also recorded 69 deaths Thursday, by far the most in a single day followed by 25 deaths on Friday, the fourth highest total since the first case was detected.
About 37% of South Carolina’s 69,000 diagnosed COVID-19 cases have come in the past two weeks.
“If we continue to choose to ignore this and act like it is not actually happening to us, we can end up being the equivalent of New York City,” said James, a senior vice president with Prisma Health who is based in Greenville.
But unlike the more than 8 million people in New York who were the center of attention when the COVID-19 pandemic started, South Carolina is a small state of 5 million with comparable outbreaks also happening in larger places like Georgia and Florida, James said.
“We have a lot of other places right now that are getting very, very hot and they are big areas. So if you want the cavalry, if you think the cavalry is coming, we need to look around the room at each other because we are probably going to be it,” James said at a Friday news conference.
James estimates hospitals in the Greenville area are about two weeks away from having to make hard choices if cases continue to spike like they have since Memorial Day. He said that ominous trajectory can change in a week if people wore masks, practiced social distancing and regular hand washing.
Hospitals are being pinched in two directions. More COVID-19 patients — 1,593 people on Friday — are hospitalized than ever before. But James said nurses and other workers are getting infected while off work and in the community so beds go unfilled.
“The majority of the illness we see in our nursing staffs and our support staff is community spread. Almost all of it I can’t control,” James said. “I can keep them well in the hospital.”