COVID fears fading fast: Is crisis over?
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
Most people attending the March 14 meeting of the Darlington County School Board might not have noticed, but for the first time in roughly two years, the board had stood down from COVID red alert.
After the pandemic began, masks became mandatory for anyone in the board’s conference room at school district headquarters in Darlington – board members, staff, members of the public and the press. Now they’re optional for board meetings.
After the pandemic began, district officials used portable white plastic desks to extend the board’s C-shaped central desk into an elongated U shape, letting board members social-distance by at least 6 feet. That meant that a long row of desks facing the board, used by district staff, had to be removed, and many of the seats used by the public had to be taken out.
But at the March meeting, the board’s central desk was back to normal, the temporary extensions removed, the board members only a few feet away from each other. Only a few wore face masks. Full public seating was restored. And for what appeared to be the first time since the COVID crisis began, county Education Superintendent Tim Newman went maskless during a board meeting.
No one has been more COVID-cautious than the school district. Is the pandemic effectively over now?
“We’re not in a position where we would give the all-clear,” said Darlington County Emergency Management Director Molly Odom, whose agency has been monitoring the COVID crisis for the past two years. “We don’t need to let our guard down.”
But at the same time, Odom said, there’s no question things have gotten much better. “I think it’s going to be one of those things we learn to incorporate (into our lives,” she said. “One of the things we learn to include in our precautions.”
As far as the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is concerned, COVID is now “endemic” – it’s still here, people are still catching it, but it’s not the terrifying threat that it was for so long.
DHEC has quit giving daily updates on new COVID cases in South Carolina, and has even started comparing it, in some cases, to the standard flu bugs that circulate every winter.
As an “endemic” virus, DHEC says, COVID is “circulating in a community at an expected or normal level, minus an occasional outbreak. … South Carolina, along with other states and the federal government, has begun treating COVID-19 as an endemic virus due to declining case and hospitalization rates as well as the increased availability of vaccines, treatments and rapid testing.”
“Through these resources, along with preventive strategies like wearing masks when indicated, we can keep severe cases to a minimum and live our daily lives with an acceptable level of COVID-19 in the community,” DHEC says.
This is a remarkable turnaround in the scientific community’s thinking about COVID, which has killed 970,000 people in the United States and about 19,000 in South Carolina (including “probable” cases). More than 1 million people in South Carolina have caught COVID over the past two years, DHEC estimates.
In Darlington County, new COVID cases have been plummeting since a spike in February. On March 22, nurses at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center in Hartsville celebrated with signs as the hospital marked its first week in more than two years – 730 days – without a COVID patient.
“We have ZERO COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Carolina Pines!” the hospital said on its Facebook page. “Our employees have made many sacrifices over the past 730 days and there were many long and hard days, but our team handled each day with dedication, compassion and bravery. We have been honored to care for our community throughout the pandemic, but it sure feels good to be where we are now!”
In neighboring Florence County, home of the massive McLeod Regional Medical Center, only three COVID patients were hospitalized as of March 13, according to DHEC, and only one was in intensive care. McLeod Health has also loosened its policies to allow more visitors in a patient’s room; McLeod “hope(s) this trend will continue as communities return to normal operations and move beyond the pandemic.”
On March 21, Tidelands Health hospital on the coast held a celebration to note its first week with no COVID-19 patients in two years.
There are other signs of normalcy returning. The Darlington Raceway Throwback Parade, formerly known as the Southern 500 Parade, will return in May for the first time since 2019, the raceway announced. During 2020 and 2021, the pandemic scotched it.