COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday continued to urge people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but also repeated that whether students wear masks in class should be solely up to parents in a state where less than half the residents are fully vaccinated.
McMaster insisted South Carolina is better off than last year with the pandemic. Case counts and hospitalizations are well below last winter’s peak, but rising above an earlier 2020 summer peak, after hotels and restaurants reopened.
But the trends are alarming. The number of people hospitalized with COVID- 19 has increased four times while the number on ventilators or in intensive care have increased five times since the end of June.
On the horizon are more chances to bring people close together. By the end of next week, almost all of South Carolina’s 760,000 public school students will be back in classes, and lawmakers passed a provision that if more than 5% of a district’s students are at a virtual school, they lose significant state funding.
The General Assembly passed another budget provision in June banning school districts from requiring students and teachers to wear masks. McMaster on Monday repeated the line he has used since the spring that parents should be the ones who decide whether their children wear masks at least six times in the 15-minute news conference carried live on local television.
“For the government to mask children who have no choice to protect adults who do have a choice is the wrong thing to do and we’re not going to do it,” McMaster said.
In a joint statement Friday, South Carolina’s health and education departments said their guidance is all students wear masks inside schools.
“Masks are safe, do not interfere with learning and have provided no barrier to socialization,” the Education Department and the Department of Health and Environmental Control said in the news release.
Common sense is the best way to fight the virus, not shutdowns or mandates, the governor repeated. National COVID-19 experts are “exaggerating and engaging in hyperbole and unnecessarily alarming people,” McMaster said.
The governor, as he has all summer, did encourage people to get vaccinated. He and his wife got shots as soon as they could after contracting COVID-19 in December and he repeated that he thinks they work. But he remains against requiring people to get the COVID-19 shots.
“Football games are stating again. Classes are starting again. Now is a great time. If you are ready to get that vaccination, go ahead and get it,” McMaster said.
Just over half of the people in South Carolina have got at least one shot, while about 45% are fully vaccinated, heath officials said.
The numbers leave little doubt the pandemic continues. South Carolina is averaging about 2,500 new COVID-19 cases a day, a number only exceeded during last winter’s peak before the vaccine became wildly available.
Hospitals are filling with virus patients again. Since the beginning of July, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state has increased more than 400% to over 700 people. Around 200 people are in intensive care with the virus and close to 100 are on ventilators - both five times greater than the number reported at the beginning of the summer by state health officials
“The delta variant does pose a real threat, We know that it spreads more easily,” McMaster said before reiterating he is not going to make children wear masks.
Some local governments are discussing trying to find a way around the ban on mask requirements. Columbia passed a state of emergency over the COVID-19 spike last week and followed it up by requiring masks for children between ages 2 and 14, as well as faculty, staff and visitors in both public and private schools and day care centers. Children that young cannot be vaccinated.
A legal showdown with the state is likely as soon as this week.
McMaster, who since taking office in 2017, has occasionally cupped his hand over his ear to hear softer-spoken reporters in news conferences, asked a masked reporter to repeat her question Monday and speak louder.
“See, that’s the problem. I can barely hear you. Imagine if everybody in the school was wearing a mask. That’s one of the problems,” McMaster said. “And you are hollering.”
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