A Greenville County resident has died after contracting the coronavirus.
The first death in the county related to the virus was reported by Department of Health and Environmental Control Regional Director Tracy Murphy during a public address on Friday, March 27.
The deceased individual, whose name has not yet been released, was reportedly an elderly person with underlying health conditions.
There are 51 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in Greenville County as of the most recent data released by DHEC.
“There will be more cases,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately there will be more deaths.”
The public address brought together representatives from the city of Greenville, Greenville County, DHEC and Prisma Health, in the first of what is planned to be a series of regular public updates on the spread of the virus and containment efforts by local leaders.
An anticipated announcement on whether or not the city would enact stricter measures that would shutter nonessential businesses was rendered irrelevant before the meeting even began. That’s because just hours earlier, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced local governments do not have the authority to exercise emergency powers such as “stay at home” ordinances or other city- or countywide lockdowns. Citing legal precedent from 1980, Wilson said only the governor had the authority to enact such emergency powers under Section 25-1-440 in the South Carolina state constitution.
Greenville Mayor Knox White said he anticipates a statewide “stay at home” order. It’s “a matter of when, not if.”
“I think it could well be inevitable,” White said. “We’ll be ready for that when it comes. We’ll continue to advocate to take very strong measures to encourage people to stay at home.”
White said specific businesses like salons or barber shops will likely be ordered to close even earlier.
“When you talk about social distancing, obviously there’s no social distance there,” he said. “People in those businesses have been asking about that, as there’s been some ambiguity there. We are certainly advocating for the governor to take action there.”
County Council Chairman Butch Kirven said there was a fine line between how much government should control under emergency circumstances and how much a government was able to control.
“If you make orders that are unenforceable, which could be the case with local orders mandating certain action by citizens, you’re relying on the public voluntarily complying,” Kirven said. “And to an important extent, we believe the public is voluntarily complying at this time.”
DHEC recommends following these simple tips to stop the spread of respiratory illnesses, like #COVID19 and #flu: get the flu vaccine, wash your hands, cover your cough, and dispose of tissues contaminated with respiratory droplets.
— SCDHEC (@scdhec) March 4, 2020
Social distancing likely through April
Locally, social distancing measures will likely continue through April or longer, according to Dr. Eric Ossman of Prisma Health. But any definite predictions on timelines are still difficult to make, Ossman said, given the variety of the projection models at play, as well as the public’s role in halting the spread of the virus.
“I’m hesitantly optimistic,” Ossman said.
Ossman said local hospitals, including Prisma Health, have an appropriate number of ventilators to meet the expected influx of patients. Additionally, VESper, a device developed by Prisma Health and its partners that can allow a single ventilator to be used for up to four patients at a time, has received approval for emergency use by the FDA. Read more about the ventilator innovation.
Testing capabilities are also increasing regularly, and Ossman predicts hundreds of people will be able to get tested each day starting next week.
“The situation is evolving. Today we have more testing capabilities than we had yesterday, and we’ll have more on Monday than we do now,” Ossman said. “All I can say is, every day so far this week I’ve felt better than I did the day before. And if that continues, we’ll be in an okay position.”
An unusual press conference
Friday’s press conference was addressed to an unusually sparse audience of reporters, all of whom took efforts to stay separated from one another. No other members of the general public were in attendance.
Before the meeting began, City of Greenville Communications Director Beth Brotherton thoroughly cleaned the podium with sanitized wipes, and local leaders accustomed to shaking hands now stood feet apart from one another.
White said future conferences may include questions from the public asked via Facebook Live or other means.
“We think people want to ask more questions, with more lengthy discussion, and that’s something we’re looking into moving forward,” he said.