South Carolina reverses, requires masks on school buses


COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina students will again be required to wear masks on school buses starting Monday as COVID-19 cases among children and students are rising rapidly and health care workers are increasingly struggling to deal with the crush of unvaccinated patients of all ages.

The state Education Department told schools in July they did not have to make students on buses wear masks. But the agency changed its mind in a letter Thursday, bringing it into line with federal health rules about masks on buses.

Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said the delta variant of COVID-19 appears to be spreading quickly in children and more must be done to keep students safe and schools open.

Districts who need masks will get them by the end of the weekend to pass out to students who board buses without a face covering. Drivers can’t kick a student off a bus for not wearing a mask.

Spearman’s letter does not change the ban on mask mandates in schools and classrooms passed in the state budget by the General Assembly.

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Nearly 30% of new COVID-19 cases in South Carolina in the past two weeks have been in people age 20 and under. During the same time in 2020, about 17% of cases were in that age group, according to data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Currently, only people age 12 or over can be vaccinated against COVID-19. People ages 12 to 20 make up a little over 10% of the state population, but just 7% of the people who have gotten at least one shot.

Prisma Health, which provides health care for about half the state, said it is running out of beds and workers to take care of the youngest patients.

The danger with children is especially frustrating since many of them can’t be vaccinated, said Dr. Wendell James, chief clinical officer for Prisma Health in the Upstate.

“They depend on us and the community around them to protect them from harm. And we need to, as adults, take that responsibility on,” Davis said,

Health officials Thursday reported 56 COVID-19 deaths, the highest numbers of deaths in a day since mid-March, when the worst peak of the pandemic so far was winding down.

South Carolina is now averaging more than 4,200 new COVID-19 cases a day. The only time the state was reporting more new cases was for three weeks at the height of the pandemic in January.

While children are one of the biggest worries currently with the pandemic, hospitals across the state continue to warn they are nearing capacity with all patients.

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Lexington Medical Center on Wednesday had 192 COVID-19 patients — more than any other time during the pandemic. Officials warned the surge of patients mean other medical emergencies like heart attacks or injuries in accident may have to wait longer than normal for care.

“We’re going to do everything we can, but our waits are much longer than we would want them to be, much longer than you or I would want them to be. We’re trying our best, but it is incredibly difficult,” Lexington Medical Center President and CEO Tod Augsburger told WIS-TV.

Prisma Health’s hospitals in the Midlands and Upstate had 12 COVID-19 patients on July 2. They have 436 now and 94% of them didn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, officials said.

No matter the age, the people who end up in the hospital end up with a long and arduous recovery and a high possibility of chronic problems, said Dr. Christopher Lombardozzi, chief medical officer for quality for Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.

“This is not spending a day or two in the hospital with us, getting better and going home,” Lombardozzi said.

Doctors and nurses are being pushed to the brink, especially frustrated since getting shots are a simple way to stop the worst COVID-19 cases, he said.

“Last winter we dealt with the worst pandemic we thought we would ever have to deal with. It’s worse now,” Lombardozzi said.

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