COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020 by the World Health Organization.
The Upstate has seen high incidence rates for weeks. Greenville County has almost 64,000 cases of COVID-19 with 860 deaths. More than 1,852 people have been hospitalized.
More than 500,000 people have now died due to COVID-19 in the United States. To help put that into context, a year is 525,000 minutes. That means there’s a COVID-19 death per minute to fill up a year’s time.
It’s also almost the same amount as fast-food cooks in the U.S., according to National Geographic.
It’s a quarter more than the death toll of U.S. troops in World War II. Or equal to the entire population of Atlanta, Georgia, being lost — plus some.
Globally, COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus, has claimed the lives of more than 2.5 million people, according to WHO. More than 113 million people have been infected with the virus.
In South Carolina, the Department of Health and Environmental Control has confirmed 442,000 cases of COVID-19. Almost 8,000 people have died in the state.
“Modern-day society has never encountered anything quite like this, from the standpoint of how connected we are,” says Dr. Wendell James, Prisma Health’s chief clinical officer. “The thing that [the pandemic has] shown society is we have to be responsible for each other.”
James has been one of the countless medical professionals who have routinely called for Upstate communities to adhere to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Recommendations that we’ve all heard by now: wear a face mask, observe social distance, wash hands frequently and avoid large gatherings. All safeguards proven to stem the spread of a virus that has infected and killed millions around the world.
So how has this changed life as we know it (or used to know it)?
The effects on health care
One of the biggest changes that communities have undergone during the pandemic has been the relationship with health care.
For weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, doctors canceled surgeries. One year later, visitors to hospitals and to doctor’s offices are still restricted. Patients avoiding hospitals due to concerns over the virus may lead to a rise in undiagnosed illnesses down the line.
Dr. Surabhi Gaur, Bon Secours St. Francis Health System’s chief medical officer, says people may need to get used to a yearly coronavirus shot from here on out as medical experts continue learning about COVID-19 (also called SARS-CoV-2).
“If we had a public health infrastructure, this marvelous vaccine that we have could really have been, you know, doled out more efficiently by now,” Gaur says. “I think the disparities in health care are really, really glaring during this pandemic.
“It’s very interesting to me that it took took a pandemic to, again, shed light on all that, just how different we are and just how people with resources have, again, been able to weather a catastrophe much differently than people without,” Guar adds.
Prisma’s James says the future of medicine has changed as we have utilized telehealth services in greater numbers. An option that may not have been trusted before became necessary.
“We’re going to use more electronic methods to take care of patients than we’ve ever done before,” says James.
The effects on education
On March 16, 2020, Greenville County Schools began sending students home to participate in eLearning instead of in-person classes. At the time, many thought the change to virtual learning was only temporary. On April 22, 2020, Gov. Henry McMaster announced all South Carolina schools would be closed due to the coronavirus and students would wrap up the year online. When the 2020-21 school year began, Upstate counties provided two options for students: in-person instruction based on an attendance plan that would fluctuate depending on the rate of COVID-19 in the community or a virtual program.
While about 50,000 GCS students chose the in-person option, 20,000 elected to attend virtual school.
Looking back at the start of the pandemic, Superintendent Burke Royster says, “The biggest challenge has been the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic.
“None of our generation has faced a time like this. And parents have had to do things differently; students have had to do things differently,” says Royster.
Students are resilient, though, he adds. The school district has undergone drastic shifts in the attendance plans and more ways to attend in-person classes safely, which experts say is paramount to children’s health.
In brick-and-mortar schools, elementary and middle school students attend in person five days a week, while high school students remain 75% in person.
Now, it seems like virtual learning is here to stay long-term as a new way of approaching education.
“If they’ll do well with that, we’re going to have some opportunities for students to take classes virtually that might not be available to them in their school,” says Royster.
The effects on the economy
Across the Upstate the economic toll of the pandemic has left many businesses closed and many unemployed.
“The Upstate economy has been heavily affected by the coronavirus struggle,” says Bruce Yandle, co-founder of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism and professor emeritus of economics at Clemson University, in an email. A comparison year-on-year of unemployment rates is just one important factor, he says.
“In December 2019, the unemployment rate was 2.1%. The rate for December 2020, the most recent we have, was 4.0%. It should be noted that the rate rose to 12% in April 2020. The Spartanburg [metropolitan statistical area] December 2020 unemployment rate was 4.7%, up from 2.2% in December 2019. Spartanburg’s rate rose to 15.3% in April,” Yandle says.
Judging by the numbers, says Yandle, there’s been an improvement over the past year. While several manufacturing plants stopped production in spring 2019, many have returned to the same production schedules now they had prior.
However, Yandle cautions that not all industries have fared well. He says the tourism and travel sector is down about 10% from last year — about 5,000 jobs lost.
Yandle is optimistic about the future, though.
“As to future prospects, I believe the Upstate economy will continue to outperform the national economy,” he says. “We have low-density population, no rapid transit that crowds people together as they get to their destination, and we have a mild climate, which favors outdoor activity, and lots of highly skilled people.”
The effects on the arts
The COVID-19 pandemic has cost Greenville’s arts organizations millions in potential income due to cancellations and closings related to the pandemic. From the Warehouse Theatre to the Peace Center, organizations have had to turn to unique strategies to maintain their patrons and sustain themselves — many taking the show online.
“The arts have suffered greatly due to the pandemic, especially financially. Losses thus far are estimated to be at least $50 million,” says Alan Ethridge, executive director of Greenville’s Metropolitan Arts Council, in an email. He explains that due to social distancing regulations and limited capacity, venues can’t bring in the crowds like they used to. This has resulted in some groups having to reduce staff.
There is hope though for 2021 with the rise in vaccine uptake and the potential return to in-person performances.
“The Greenville community has been very generous in terms of providing the necessary funding to ensure the sustainability of our great cultural community,” says Ethridge.
He notes that MAC, along with the Graham Foundation, Hollingsworth Funds, the Community Foundation of Greenville and the Canal Charitable Foundation gave $488,950 in COVID-19 relief funds to 31 arts organizations in Greenville County. That cash has been used to offset some of the damage from the pandemic.
“The arts will survive, despite the financial losses,” says Ethridge. “We will have to wait a few years to see some of the great art that has been inspired by and created during the pandemic.”