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Conway Medical Center in Conway on March 16, 2020. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

As the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control keeps upping the tally of COVID-19 patients in Horry County and across the state, one question keeps frustrating local officials: where are the patients coming from? 

DHEC is updating the patient totals by each patient's county of residence, but in Horry County, home to more than 300,000 people and eight different municipalities, the lack of more specific information is frustrating. 

On Friday, Horry County had eight confirmed patients. But DHEC won't say where those patients are from.

“It would probably be helpful to know for sure if there was a case within your city limits,” North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley said. 

So far, DHEC has not released any of that information. Horry County Assistant Administrator Randy Webster, who is also the county's emergency manager, has been area's point man for receiving confirmation of a COVID-19 case. But that's all he's being told about the patient.

"It's caused some frustration locally," county spokeswoman Kelly Moore said. "But [we] also understand this is an unprecedented event. There's going to be challenges."

DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said in an email that the department may release more details in the future, “but right now, our epidemiologists and all of our public health officials are focusing on preventing spread.”

Preventing the spread is exactly why city officials like Conway City Administrator Adam Emrick want more information. Towns and cities across the county could take more action at a local level to protect their residents, he said, but they don’t want to take those measures until they have confirmed cases.

“We at the city have a number of steps we need to take, both to protect the citizens and the employees, and these steps might be somewhat extreme and disruptive to normal activities,” Emrick said. “We don’t want to implement them unless we have a need to do so.” 

And Emrick isn’t asking for names, addresses, streets, or even neighborhoods (patients' medical information is protected under federal law).

“If they told us Conway area, that would help us,” he said. “If there’s a case in Little River, I don’t have to worry as much. If DHEC doesn’t give us this information, we’ll have to proceed as if every case is in the city of Conway.” 

Emrick is specifically worried about garbage collection and public safety employees.

“If we’re responding to a case that we have even an inkling that this is a respiratory case, we’d respond in a different way,” Emrick said, suggesting that employees may wear additional protection or ask callers to come outside if they can. “We have to safeguard ourselves if there’s an imminent risk. That’s a worst-case scenario.”

Other precautions Conway could take if it knows about a case within its borders include “ramping up the use of masks and gloves by people who are working outdoors, or just make reasonable safeguards to preserve the health and wellness of our employees,” said Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy. “What we’ve asked is DHEC simply report to the city any confirmed case of COVID 19 to the city. They said they’re precluded from doing that.”

The Conway administrator is also concerned about trash pickup. He said the city might change the way it picks up trash if it knew it had a case to protect the city’s sanitation workers from potential exposure.

“We can’t just let the garbage sit there, so I’m really worried about my employees,” Emrick said. “If all my solid waste employees get sick, I can’t pick up garbage either.”

Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen said it’s better to have the information than not to have it, and he supports the county’s efforts to get more location data. 

“The more specific information we can get, the better we’re in a position to keep the public informed and make decisions ourselves,” Pedersen said. “We don’t know how to use the information yet because how we use it depends on what the information is. The more we do now, the faster we’re going to get through this.”

Pedersen said the county had last talked to DHEC on Thursday, and said he thought they were “making some headway,” but just not enough. 

Renwick said patient privacy laws prevent DHEC from releasing more information as the virus spreads. She said the department will work to “protect public health,” identify close contacts of known cases and announce new cases’ county of origin.

“DHEC will always provide the information that helps South Carolinians stay informed about COVID-19, however, DHEC is obligated and required to protect every individual’s personal health information,” she said in a statement.

Blain-Bellamy said Conway isn’t interested in invading anyone’s privacy, and questioned how strict DHEC needs to be in interpreting patient privacy laws.

“What we simply asked is if there’s a confirmed case of COIVD-19, that the city be advised that within its corporate area there is such a case, so we can respond reasonably," the mayor added.

North Myrtle Beach City Councilwoman Nikki Fontana said she understands the need to protect some patient privacy within the bounds of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, but she would like a specific area of COVID-19 patient origin, “just so we can help keep our public aware and safe, and making sure that they’re being mindful of not being out in large groups and practicing the social distancing and washing their hands.

“I believe it helps to keep the public aware of what’s going on,” Fontana said. 

Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught said county leaders also want more details from DHEC. He pointed out that he heard about a local patient being diagnosed with the virus before DHEC confirmed it.

“I knew about it before Randy [Webster] did,” he said.

Vaught said he would like to know where an infected patient has been treated and whether that person has been sent home. Any details about how the virus spread locally would also help.  

“It’s nice of them to sit up there and say, ‘OK, we’ll answer your questions,’ but tell us what the hell is going on," he said. "It’s like having satellite information on a hurricane. If we had to sit here and have no radar and no satellite, how would we prepare for a damn hurricane? That’s the way it is. We don’t have any eyes out there.” 

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(1) comment

egrantva@aol.com

Perhaps DEHEC did not receive this? https://www.hipaajournal.com/hipaa-compliance-and-covid-19-coronavirus/

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