SC health, school leaders: ‘Stay the course’ despite governor’s calls to lift mask orders

SC health, school leaders: ‘Stay the course’ despite governor’s calls to lift mask orders

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina’s top public health official says there are positive signs for South Carolina’s fight against COVID-19, but it’s not time to take masks off just yet.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster called on local cities and municipalities with mask ordinances to lift them.

“It’s time to wrap this up or I will do it for them!” the governor tweeted.

He also called on schools to stop requiring students to wear masks in class.

“It is ridiculous for school districts to tell parents whether or not their child should wear a mask in the classroom, that is up to the parent,” McMaster posted.

Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Dr. Edward Simmer said he respects that the governor needs to consider many issues when making policy decisions, such as public opinion -- but his agency recommends the state continues to follow CDC guidance on mask wearing.

Simmer said the state’s percent positive is still hovering between five and six percent, which he calls “very concerning.”

“Strictly from a public health standpoint we continue at DHEC to recommend that those communities that have mass ordinances keep them and wear masks in school, through the end of the school year. I think come fall, when the school year starts, we can revisit that,” Simmer told WIS in a one-on-one interview. “I’m very hopeful that by that point, we will have more people vaccinated, we will be closer to herd immunity, and maybe at that point we won’t need the masks in schools anymore, but certainly we believe that for the remainder of this school year, keeping the masks on students in school is very important.”

Simmer said masks are crucial for vaccinated people to protect their peers to prevent breakthrough cases.

“We have had over 200 people who’ve been vaccinated and still got COVID,” he explained. “You know the vaccine is very effective but it’s not perfect. It’s not 100%, so you still are in some risk. If you wear a mask, it decreases that risk.”

Simmer added while school-aged children rarely get a severe case of COVID-19, some kids have died from the virus and studies have shown they can spread it to others.

The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) also urged schools to continue to follow the guidelines that are currently in place.

“By following the mitigation strategies recommended by public health experts, South Carolina is one of only a handful of states in which every school is fully open to in-person learning,” SCDE spokesman Ryan Brown said. “We would advise districts to continue to follow these guidelines and if the Governor feels that they are no longer needed, he has the power to issue an executive order directing districts to abandon them.”

But McMaster says the recent guidelines put out by the CDC are “absurd” and “unreasonable.”

Specifically, he takes issue with the federal government advising fully vaccinated people to wear a mask anytime they are not outside in a small group or inside with other vaccinated people.

“I think the Biden administration is way off base, and I think the people of South Carolina and others across the country know better,” McMaster said. “The vaccine was always meant to be a means to an end, and we are nearing the end.”

The governor and first lady recently received their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine after both contracting the virus over the winter.

However, according to DHEC, while everyone 16 and older are eligible to get the vaccine in South Carolina, many aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity.

Dr. Simmer said there is still work to be done to convince minority groups and younger people to get the vaccine, but these aren’t the only groups that are vaccine-hesitant.

“People who naturally have some distrust of government of institutions, those folks we know tend to have vaccine hesitancy too because they may see the vaccine as coming from the government,” Simmer said.

Simmer does not blame groups who are vaccine hesitant for not getting the shot. Instead, he sees it as his team’s responsibility to show these groups this vaccine is safe and effective.

“We have to make sure that we’re addressing their concerns. They have genuine concerns,” he said. “They have genuine fears, you know. ‘What is this vaccine going to do to me? Is it really going to work? What are the side effects?’ It is requisite on us to make sure we’re getting them correct information.”

To fight disinformation, Simmer said his team is continuing to reach out to influential people in communities across the state to arm them with the facts to help convince their peers to get the shot.

The other roadblock to increasing vaccination rates in the state is improving access and easy availability of the vaccine, he said.

“We have to make it as easy as possible to get the vaccine,” he said. “We are looking at how we can start going door-to-door and offering people vaccine. You know, we have mobile units. Let’s get out into every part of the state.”

In his opinion, South Carolina can reach a level of herd immunity by sometime this summer. He said at that time, DHEC can recommend people wear masks less often. But that can only happen if people “don’t wait and vaccinate,” Simmer said.

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