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Latest News in Mount Pleasant

CDC issues new COVID-19 mask guidance but SC cities unlikely to reimpose mandates soon

As new coronavirus cases inch upward in South Carolina and other states see surges driven by the fast-spreading Delta variant, federal health officials issued new guidance on July 27 directing all people living in pandemic hot spots to wear masks inside, regardless of vaccination status. But South Carolina’s cities, towns and counties aren’t likely to immediately pass new mask mandates. The guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is new, and spokesmen for Charleston and North Charlesto...

As new coronavirus cases inch upward in South Carolina and other states see surges driven by the fast-spreading Delta variant, federal health officials issued new guidance on July 27 directing all people living in pandemic hot spots to wear masks inside, regardless of vaccination status.

But South Carolina’s cities, towns and counties aren’t likely to immediately pass new mask mandates.

The guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is new, and spokesmen for Charleston and North Charleston said officials haven’t yet had a chance to review the federal agency’s suggestions in depth.

And for now, no communities in the Charleston area are considered coronavirus hot spots.

“Fortunately, Charleston’s vaccination rate is well above the state average and our city is not currently considered a hot spot,” said Jack O’Toole, a Charleston spokesman. “That said, we’re mindful of this latest CDC guidance and will continue to work closely with (the Medical University of South Carolina) and other area health care professionals to ensure that city policy is consistent with their best medical judgment in this constantly evolving situation.”

Ryan Johnson, a North Charleston spokesman, said his city’s officials are reviewing the CDC guidance and continue to urge residents to get vaccinated.

Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie said he is proud of the town’s high vaccination rate and hopes to see more residents get their shots.

Issuing new mask mandates, however, is not currently an option, Haynie said.

“Mandating masks with all that has changed, including the high vaccination rate, is legally and politically not on the table, he said. “We continue to emphasize getting vaccinations.”

The Post and Courier called Summerville Mayor Ricky Waring but he could not be reached for this story.

Local governments around the Palmetto State could face a complicated road if they want to reinstate mask rules.

That’s because of a May 11 order issued by Gov. Henry McMaster that nullified local coronavirus restrictions that were tied to his pandemic emergency declarations.

During much of the pandemic, local governments that passed mask rules pinned their legal authority on McMaster’s declarations. The governor never passed a statewide mandate, instead leaving masking decisions up to each city, county and town.

With the legal framework of the governor’s orders gone, local governments that want to pass mask rules will have to rewrite their ordinances to put them in place.

Brian Symmes, a spokesman for the governor, said McMaster never implemented a statewide mask mandate at the height of the pandemic and “he’s certainly not going to now.”

“Aside from the fact it is entirely unenforceable, South Carolinians have been learning about the virus for over a year and a half now,” Symmes said. “They know what they need to do to be safe, and they certainly don’t need the governor or any other government official restricting them in any way at this point.”

Masking rules across the country relaxed during spring and early summer as case numbers fell. But the emergence of the Delta variant, a strain of the coronavirus that’s mutated to spread more easily from person to person, started spreading rapidly, especially in communities with lower vaccination rates. The new strain has some cities and towns revaluating their mask rules. On July 26, Savannah, Ga., reinstated its mask ordinance.

Shortly after the CDC’s announcement on July 27, Dr. Gerald E. Harmon, president of the American Medical Association, issued a statement agreeing with the federal agency.

“With cases of COVID-19 continuing to increase in the United States and a significant number of people who remain unvaccinated, the CDC’s updated mask guidance is needed to help curb the spread of COVID-19—particularly the delta variant, which we know is much more contagious,” Harmon, a physician who is based in Pawleys Island, said.

Emerging data shows that vaccinated people who are infected by the Delta variant carry similar viral loads as those who aren’t vaccinated, he said.

That high viral load increases the chances that person will pass the virus to someone else, Harmon said. Research does show the authorized vaccines are safe and effective in preventing severe COVID-19 complications, such as hospitalization and death.

The American Medical Association strongly supports the CDC’s updated recommendations, Harmon said.

“Wearing a mask is a small, but important protective measure that can help us all stay safer,” Harmon said. “The AMA continues to strongly encourage everyone who is eligible for COVID-19 vaccines to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control also weighed in on the masking issue and agreed with the CDC’s guidance on Tuesday.

“DHEC is adopting the federal agency’s updated guidance and is recommending all South Carolinians, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear their masks when indoors and in public settings,” the state public health agency said.

Officials cited a rise in breakthrough cases — COVID-19 infections in people who are fully vaccinated — that is likely being fueled by the rise of the Delta variant, the agency said.

State health officials said the agency’s recommendations are not a mandate and acknowledged that state law prohibits mask mandates in schools.

But the agency is strongly recommending individuals wear masks to protect themselves and others, according to the statement.

“Today’s change in guidance from the CDC reflects the very concerning trends we are seeing nationally and here in South Carolina regarding increasing case rates and a stagnant vaccination rate,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC’s public health director. “We were hoping to reach herd immunity to stifle the spread of COVID-19 to prevent this scenario, but public health urgency now makes it necessary to return to recommending universal masking in public indoor settings.”

DHEC’s statement appears to be in conflict with McMaster’s earlier statements on masks, particularly in schools.

State law now prohibits school administrators from requiring students to wear a mask. The General Assembly agreed with me – and that decision is now left up to the parents.

— Gov. Henry McMaster (@henrymcmaster) July 27, 2021

“State law now prohibits school administrators from requiring students to wear a mask,” the governor wrote in a series of tweets on July 27. “The General Assembly agreed with me — and that decision is now left up to the parents. The delta variant poses a real threat to South Carolinians. However, shutting our state down, closing schools and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is.”

McMaster also continued to urge South Carolinians to get vaccinated. To date, less than half of the state is fully vaccinated.

The Governor’s Office confirmed DHEC did not consult with McMaster or his staff before issuing the statement about the CDC’s new guidance. The state’s public health agency is not part governor’s Cabinet and is governed by its own board.

School districts and campuses seeking guidance on masking, meanwhile, remain prohibited from enacting mask mandates.

State legislators blocked school districts and any individual schools from using state funds to require that students and employees wear a mask at any education facility. That rule went into effect July 1 and will be in place for a year.

Erica Taylor, chief of staff for the Charleston County School District, said officials will review the new CDC guidelines and continue discussions with DHEC as well as the Medical University of South Carolina, “seeking a responsible position that complies with the recent state proviso prohibiting school districts and schools from mandating masks for students and employees.”

In a similar move, the Legislature banned public colleges, including technical colleges, from requiring masks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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