Politics of COVID surprised SC health agency director, made disease fight challenging

Photo courtesy of DHEC

Since taking control at the state’s environmental and health agency more than 18 months ago, Edward Simmer has faced a challenge trying to wrestle COVID 19 to the ground.

But while he expected the long hours and pressure of battling a contagious disease unlike any ever seen before, one thing continues to surprise him: how political the coronavirus issue became nationally and in South Carolina.

In an interview with The State this week, Simmer said politics that penetrated the fight made it imperative that his agency provide clear, accurate information to the public.

“The politicization of public health over the past two years has been both surprising and very unfortunate,’’ Simmer said. “It’s harmed our mission. It’s made it more difficult for people to get accurate information.‘’

“That’s not specific to the agency. That’s nationwide, even worldwide. To see how political public health issues have become has been a challenge.’’

Among the issues specific to COVID 19 were whether people needed vaccines, as well as whether they should wear masks to control the spread and protect themselves.

Even though the science supporting vaccines and masking is sound and widely accepted among doctors, many people suspicious of government initiatives — whose fears were sometimes fueled by conservative media outlets — refused to be inoculated or wear facial coverings as the disease raged.

In South Carolina, some legislators supported efforts to use alternative treatments that were not widely accepted as useful for battling the coronavirus. Vaccine skeptics even testified before legislative panels about unproven treatments.

Meanwhile, Gov. Henry McMaster in 2021 issued an executive order banning school districts and local governments from requiring facial coverings. The then-incoming DHEC board chairman, Robert Bolchoz, also questioned the need for masks in schools.

Simmer was careful not to single out any person or event, but he said his agency had to work extra hard to provide sound information.

The best messaging was to be honest and provide the latest information about how to deal with the disease, he said. Partnering with community groups was vital to getting out good information, he said.

“Maintaining and, when needed, rebuilding trust is a huge issue for us,’’ Simmer said. “We’re trying to encourage people to do things that will help improve their health, help improve their quality of life. But they have to trust us and believe that we’re telling them the truth.’’

Simmer took the reigns at DHEC in early 2021, nearly a year after the infectious disease began to sweep across the state and the nation. DHEC had been without a director for months after Simmer’s predecessor, Rick Toomey, quit the agency for non-COVID-related medical reasons.

Simmer’s arrival was seen as important to help guide the agency. A former Navy psychiatrist, he focused much of his attention on COVID at an agency with a wide range of responsibilities

The coronavirus has subsided, to a degree, and many mask recommendations have been dropped.

COVID cases and deaths in South Carolina are down dramatically since they last peaked in late January, health department data shows.

At the height of that surge, the state was reporting more than 17,000 cases and 70 deaths per day. Since the beginning of April, however, average daily case counts have not exceeded 2,500 and daily deaths number in the single digits.

Over the past week, state health officials reported 4,516 COVID-19 cases and five deaths, a 56% decline in cases and a 72% drop in deaths over the past four weeks, according to DHEC data.

About 60 percent of the state has been vaccinated and others who have contracted the coronavirus are better protected from infection, Simmer said.

Simmer said he agrees with recent comments by President Joe Biden that the coronavirus pandemic is over. Even though COVID remains a threat, the threat is less pronounced than it was when he arrived in South Carolina, Simmer said.

“I think he’s actually right about that,’’ Simmer said. “We have moved certainly in South Carolina to COVID-19 really being more of an endemic status. And why I say that is because I think we have reached a fairly stable level. You know, we will see some increases and decreases, some waxing and waning, that’s normal. But again, I think we’ve reached the point where we have the ability to control — not eliminate — to a much greater degree than we did.’’

Simmer said “We now have a virus that is very easily transmitted but less severe.’’

The subsidence of coronavirus, for instance, can be found in wastewater samples being taken from about a dozen of the state’s larger sewage treatment systems.

“Those trends are downward,’’ he said.

That, however, doesn’t mean the agency will stop encouraging people to get vaccines and following safe practices to prevent the spread of COVID, he said. That includes staying away from large gatherings if a person tests positive for the coronavirus.

Since the COVID outbreak began in early 2020, about 1.7 million cases have been reported and more than 18,000 people have died from the virus in South Carolina, according to DHEC data.

Simmer said there could be a spike in cases during the upcoming holiday season.

Meanwhile, Simmer said his agency has used some of the lessons learned from COVID to attack Monkey Pox, a less widespread disease but one that should be paid attention to.

The State reported last week that Black men have been infected the most, but white men have received most of the vaccines.

“That sort of disparity is a big concern for us,’’ he said.

DHEC has begun setting up vaccination locations at Pride festivals and is actively working with college medical centers, he said. With COVID, it worked with minority organizations, he said.

In the spring of 2021, “we saw the same kind of disparity where African American and Hispanic groups were vaccinated at a significantly lower rate in South Carolina than Caucasian,’’ he said.

Simmer added that “Now, if you look at the COVID vaccination rates, Hispanics actually have the highest rate and African Americans and Caucasians are about equal.’’