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Tidelands Health Waccamaw Community Hospital in Murrells Inlet on March 16, 2020. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Due to COVID-19's increased community spread, Tidelands Health on Tuesday announced it was again suspending hospital visitation, effective 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Exceptions will be made for end-of-life, labor-and-delivery and pediatric patients. 

Tidelands and other hospital systems restricted visitation back in March as the virus first began its spread throughout South Carolina's Lowcountry region, and it's taking precautions once again.

On Thursday, Tidelands said it had just three COVID-19-positive patients hospitalized in its healthcare system. On Friday, that number jumped to nine, and on Tuesday, there were 20 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, with another 14 classified as "persons under investigation" while test results are pending.

Horry County's Hospital capacity was 77.5 percent as of Sunday, according to DHEC data. The statewide hospital capacity was 68 percent as of Monday. The state's hospital capacity has been trending upwards since mid-April. 

As of Monday, South Carolina had a cumulative total of 25,666 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 while they had an active infection, and another 1,630 have tested positive for anti-bodies, meaning they'd already had the disease. Horry County's total is 2,054. 

So far, 659 people have died from COVID-19, with 39 of them in Horry County.

The recent spike in cases isn't just due to testing, as evidenced by the hospitalization rate and the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive. 

Even as the state has surpassed its testing goal of 110,000 people per month, or roughly 2 percent of the population, the percent of tests coming back positive has climbed above 10 percent, where it's remained for the better part of the last two week, indicated the virus' wide community spread.

A percent-positive rate of 10 percent or more indicates the need for more testing and DHEC announced Tuesday that it was upping its testing goal to 140,000 people per month for June, July and August, and 165,000 people per month for the rest of the year. 

In the absence of mask-wearing requirements, DHEC and public health officials have begged the public to start acting more responsibly, pleading with residents to wear masks in public, to practice social distancing, to avoid large public gatherings and to stay home when they feel sick. 

Masks and social distancing are especially important for people in public, because many patients are asymptomatic but still contagious, and symptomatic people who are infected can still spread the virus before their symptoms show up. 

Tidelands Health's Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. Gerald Harmon said an estimated 40 percent of COVID-19 transmissions occur before the onset of symptoms, meaning that people who don't wear a mask because they're not feeling sick can spread the disease to other people, including high-risk populations such as elderly people and those with autoimmune conditions who are more likely to die from COVID-19. 

"I cannot say strongly enough how important it is that everyone take steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus in our community," said Dr. Gerald Harmon, Tidelands' vice president of medical affairs. "Lives are at stake. We need our residents and visitors to wear a mask when around others, to practice good hand hygiene and to observe social distancing. These simple steps will save lives on the Grand Strand – maybe even your life or the life of someone you love." 

In addition to wearing masks, practicing social distancing and other precautions, testing is a critical tool to identify those who are infected and slow the spread. 

Tidelands has conducted about 6,500 tests since May. 

Their next large free testing event is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m at Coastal Carolina University. No pre-screening is required. Tidelands has the capacity to test 2,500 people, and the event will last until supplies run out. 

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