SC gov directs officials to release virus cases by ZIP code


South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks at a news conference introducing state Rep. Bobby Cox as his pick to lead the state’s veterans’ affairs agency, on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, at a news conference in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Gov. Henry McMaster has directed South Carolina’s health department to begin publicly disclosing confirmed COVID-19 cases by ZIP code, a level of information specificity the agency had previously said was not necessary in efforts to temper the outbreak.

Also on Friday, Greenville City Council passed a $100 fine for any essential business still open that does not try to enforce social distancing in its store.

In a tweet, McMaster said the order was effective Friday, noting that he also wanted the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to begin providing “the estimated number of residents who are likely infected and untested” in the same ZIP code.

“Providing this non-identifying information violates no state or federal privacy laws and is in the public’s interest,” McMaster said. “It is my hope this disclosure will reinforce to South Carolinians the seriousness and dire necessity of staying home to prevent the spread of #covid19.”

State health officials did not immediately respond to a message Friday seeking comment on McMaster’s directive.

Scrutinized over information releases concerning the spread of the virus, like calls to release infection numbers by ZIP code instead of just by county, state health officials have expressed hesitation at releasing that level of data on known infections, as opposed to the county-level data they say is an industry standard.

In a lengthy interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, state epidemiologist Linda Bell called ZIP code-level releases a “distraction” that could violate patient privacy, saying the release of too much information could lead to the accidental identification of a patient, as she said happened in the pandemic’s early days.

Bell said the best way to mollify the outbreak is for all South Carolinians to act as if anyone with whom they come into contact may be infected, rather than merely avoiding “hot spot” areas. She also added her agency would continue to disseminate information in a way she felt would best safeguard the public.

“What would people do differently if we give more granular information, when what is needed is the measures that we have recommended all along, for the community as a whole?” Bell told the AP Wednesday. “And that’s when we don’t release additional information – when it is of no additional benefit to protect the public health.”

Health officials have said they would make more granular case location information available to first responders, announcing the creation of a statewide database of addresses of known positive COVID-19 cases. Acting public health director Nick Davidson told AP the secure tool would only made available to first responders who have argued the information could help protect them, allowing them to check to see if a home to which they’re being called has a resident who’s tested positive for the new coronavirus.

In Greenville, to avoid the $100 fine, business will need to measure off 6 feet (2 meters) at checkouts, have sanitizer available, install protective barriers at checkouts, allow employees to wear protective masks and allow customers to phone in orders and pick up curbside, according to the ordinance.

The ordinance also asks McMaster to follow the lead of leaders in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina to sign a “stay at home” order with similar provisions.

“A lot of practical issues are raised by that when we have some inconsistency across state lines,” Greenville Mayor Knox White said.

Greenville is doing well fighting the spread of the virus compared to other areas, a doctor that helps oversee emergency medicine at Prisma Health Greenville told council members.

“Our upslope is relatively gentle compared to places like Georgia and Florida. But this is not the time to back off on any of this, in fact, is is probably the time to really double down on social distancing measures,” said Dr. Eric Ossmann said.

South Carolina had reported more than 1,550 COVID-19 cases statewide as of Thursday with at least one case reported in every county for the first time. Five additional deaths were reporting, increasing the total to 31.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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