Expert: Avoid long exposure to unmasked, close crowds

By Greg Summers

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 at 2:00 am (Updated: July 22, 2:00 am)

Amid the tug-of-war between politicians and public-health professionals, Earl Hunter says the right course is clear – listen to the experts.
Hunter, a Heath Springs native who led the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for more than a decade, notes that behavior has consequences. And social-distancing, avoiding large crowds and wearing masks in public are vital safeguards against COVID-19, regardless of your political beliefs.
“I have friends that are opposed to wearing masks,” said Hunter. “I tell them if I’m wearing a mask, it shows that I care about you. If you aren’t wearing a mask, it shows you don’t care about me. That’s the signal you are sending.”

Hunter discussed COVID-19 in detail Monday during a virtual “community conversation” hosted by the Arras Foundation. The conference drew 53 participants to hear Hunter’s views on the pandemic.

“We have learned that wearing masks is one of the most important things we can do, as far as trying to get this thing under control,” said Hunter, who was DHEC commissioner from 2001-12.

“We’ve seen some major problems the last month in the Southeastern United States with an explosion of the virus. Many of the states, including South Carolina, are setting records.”

Hunter has worked in public health for 31 years. In 2012, he received the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest  civilian award.
Following case counts, test numbers and hospitalizations can be confusing, he said, which is why he keeps track of only one number.
Hunter watches the overall infection rate and whether it is going up and down. And here, it is going up.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that none of us anticipated,” he said.

In March and April, Hunter said, the COVID-19 infection rate in the state was about 5%.

Through Tuesday, the state’s average infection rate for July is almost 20%. Parts of the country, he said, have infection rates of 30% or higher.

“The infection rate of the virus is increasing… and we really want to get it down. That’s the main thing,” Hunter said, noting that it takes 15 days or more for the infection rate to impact the death rate. Right now, he said, about 2% of those who get COVID-19 die from it.

“It’s not going to go away any time soon,” said Hunter, adding that he expects a second wave to hit this fall.

While Hunter didn’t have much time to answer questions, he briefly discussed Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision on July 12 to back off a bit on his reopening rules by shutting off alcohol sales at bars and restaurants at 11 p.m. each day.

The goal, McMaster said, was to curtail the spread of the respiratory disease among the 21-30 age group, which is responsible for 22% of the total COVID-19 cases in the state.

And that, Hunter said, was based on what some of the latest COVID-19 data shows, though McMaster did not talk about the specifics of it.
“People who are in close contact for extended periods of time are the ones getting exposed to it…. If we can keep a lot of those from happening, we can get it under better control.

“That’s what Gov. McMaster wrestles with and what health officials wrestle with in trying to guide him in putting forth the best policy to help us turn this thing around in South Carolina,” Hunter said.