First potential coronavirus cases under investigation in South Carolina

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The first likely cases of coronavirus have been identified in South Carolina after weeks of concern that the potentially deadly disease could spread to the Palmetto State.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control made the announcement Friday night that two women are under observation.

One patient is an elderly woman from Kershaw County. She has been hospitalized and is in isolation, the agency said. The other patient is an adult from Charleston County. She recently traveled to France and Italy, the agency said. The patient did not require hospitalization and is at home.

The cases are not linked, DHEC said. The women’s ages were not released.

A news conference is scheduled Saturday at 10 a.m. to further discuss the findings.

“We understand that residents have concerns about how the virus may impact South Carolinians,” according to a statement from Linda Bell, South Carolina’s state epidemiologist. “While the risk to the public remains low, there is no evidence of ongoing transmission in the community at this time and our primary goals remain prevention and control.’’

In a brief news conference Friday night, DHEC officials said they did not know what airport the woman who traveled from Europe came through. Bell said the risk to others in South Carolina remains low because the state has only the two cases. But Bell said she “can’t make predictions’’ on the two patients’ recovery.

DHEC’s statement said samples submitted to the agency tested positive, but it also said the samples must be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These results are required to be confirmed by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) laboratory and are in the process of being submitted for this confirmatory testing,’’ the agency said in a news release. “ DHEC will update the public as soon as the test results from the CDC are available, which typically takes 24 to 48 hours after the specimens are received. At this time, DHEC has tested a total of 10 individuals for COVID-19, including the two presumptive positives today. The remaining tests are negative. DHEC has the ability to test 80 to 100 patients per day.’’

Gov. Henry McMaster, who will hold the media briefing Saturday morning, urged people to remain calm.

“Healthcare authorities in South Carolina have been preparing for this eventuality and there is no reason for public alarm,’’ McMaster said in a statement Friday night. “DHEC is working with the CDC on confirmation for these cases. South Carolinians should continue to follow recommendations and information provided by official sources.”

Despite finding the two likely cases, the department’s news release said people don’t need to take any extra precautions, other than the normal things people would do to prevent disease.

“No additional precautions are recommended for the public at this time, beyond the simple daily precautions that everyone should always take steps to stop the spread of illness, including getting the flu vaccine, washing your hands, covering your cough, and appropriately disposing tissues and other items contaminated with respiratory droplets,’’ Bell said in the news release.

Coronavirus had been creeping into the southeastern part of the country for several days. On Tuesday, March 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first coronavirus case in North Carolina, according to The News & Observer.

A day before that, on Monday March 2, neighboring Georgia had its first cases of coronavirus. There, two people who lived together were diagnosed with coronavirus after one of them had recently returned from a trip to Italy, according to media reports.

As of Saturday, more than 102,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with coronavirus and 3,491 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the United States, 340 people have been diagnosed with the novel virus. Seventeen deaths have been reported, including 12 in King County, Washington, according to Johns Hopkins University and NBC News.

The World Health Organization has said the death rate from coronavirus is 3.4% globally.

Symptoms of coronavirus vary from mild to severe and include coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath, according to the CDC.

The best way to prevent infection is to wash hands for 20 seconds; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth; avoid contact with sick people and clean frequently touched objects with a cleaning spray or wipe, according to the CDC.

The U.S. Surgeon General has urged members of the public to avoid buying masks because they are ineffective at preventing coronavirus, and buying them saps vital resources for health officials who need them.

Midlands area hospitals said they have been preparing for potential COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday, Lexington Medical Center said it is carefully monitoring coronavirus with multiple local, state and federal agencies. It said a team of hospital leaders and clinicians meets regularly to review the latest information and determine appropriate responses.

The hospital said it has no shortages of supplies or masks. However, the hospital has initiated conservation methods in case there are any shortages in the future.

Prisma Health said it routinely treats patients with potentially infectious diseases and follows extensive protocols to ensure the safety of patients, employees and the community. In addition, the system — which includes Prisma Health Baptist and Prisma Health Richland — has added coronavirus-specific travel screening questions to incoming patients.

Prisma Health also has provided additional CDC-based guidance to front-line employees in the emergency departments and physician practices throughout the state on how to respond to suspected cases.

As a precaution, the hospital also has ramped up its stockpile of supplies such as gowns, respirator masks and face shields.

This is a developing story. Check back for more details.