From Chick-fil-A to face masks: How South Carolina spent $50M in first 6 weeks of COVID-19

Daniel J. Gross
Greenville News

South Carolina's emergency-management leaders have spent millions of dollars on coronavirus-related supplies and equipment since the state's first emergency declaration in March — from $1.9 million for N95 masks from a fastener distributor to $2,500 for boxed meals from Chick-fil-A.

From March 16 through April, the state's Emergency Management Division spent an estimated $49.5 million on purchases from 64 different private companies primarily on behalf of counties that submitted requests through local emergency management offices.

The records, obtained by The Greenville News from the State Fiscal Accountability Authority through a Freedom of Information Act request, show 151 resource requests between March 16 and April 28. Included were gloves, hairnets, disinfectant wipes, disposable gowns, hand soap, duct work for medical tents, thermometers, social-distancing signs, bleach, rubbing alcohol, goggles, trucking services, lab coats, barbecue, pizza and deli sandwiches.

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The money spent on food — totaling $585,312 — provided sustenance to personnel handling COVID-related meetings, testing sites and other duties, said Emergency Management Division spokesperson Derrec Becker.

"Working consecutive shifts and 24-hour operations means people need to eat," Becker said. "They can’t go out and get their own meals."

Becker said many of the contracts and purchases were a matter of planning for worst-case scenarios.

"We're making sure our first-responders have what they need first," he said.

Paramedics prepare a community testing site for coronavirus testing at Augusta Heights Baptist Church Saturday, May 2, 2020.

New cases of the coronavirus have climbed statewide, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Through Sunday, when South Carolina marked a record 799 new cases of the virus, 18,795 cases had been reported in the state and 600 residents have died from the disease.

State officials have been securing and allocating resources in response. The state's actual, ultimate total cost for expenses over the first six weeks of the pandemic's local reach will likely prove to be less than $49.5 million. Purchase records include an estimated cost, which the state is required to record and does not reflect the final bill, Becker said.

"Per state procurement code, we have to attach a cost quote with every resource request as it makes its way through the system," Becker said.

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The state's actual costs once contracts and purchases are completed will be calculated later along with determination of which purchases will be covered by federal grants. The state expects that at least 75% of its coronavirus-related purchases will be paid for through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is typical for other emergencies, Becker said.

The bulk of the 151 purchase requests between March and April were for personal protective equipment such as gowns, gloves and face masks. Those requests have slowed in recent weeks as health-care systems and agencies have found their own methods of obtaining that equipment, Becker said.

$22 million planned for Louis Berger Group, but ultimate cost to be less

The most expensive single item listed on the purchase-order spreadsheet SCEMD provided in response to The News' request is identified as "supplies/equipment" from The Louis Berger Group for $22 million.

That contract was set up at the start of the pandemic with the expectation that new medical facilities would likely be needed to ease an overburdened hospital system. That didn't happen in South Carolina as hospitals have continued to see a somewhat average utilization rate, according to Laura Renwick, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"In mid-March, by Governor's Executive Order, elective and non-essential surgeries were halted in order to free as many hospital beds as possible as the COVID-19 virus first appeared in the state. However, the state never came close to full-bed utilization," Renwick said in an email to The Greenville News.

Paramedics prepare a community testing site for coronavirus testing at Augusta Heights Baptist Church Saturday, May 2, 2020.

As of May 27, the statewide hospital bed utilization rate was at 68%, according to DHEC. Of the 7,081 inpatient beds used, 398 were occupied by patients who either tested positive or are suspected to have COVID-19.

Louis Berger had already been awarded one of the state's primary disaster contracts in 2016 and has provided services and equipment for disasters in recent years, including supplying transport buses and materials for hurricane relief. The contract remains in effect through 2021.

So far, for the COVID-19 pandemic, Louis Berger has supported the state's logistics operations and medical surge planning, Becker said. And the group has managed personal protective equipment shipments and deliveries at three warehouses, and it has supplied childcare centers with PPE and provided forklifts to move shipments of equipment, Becker said.

"They would have been the ones building emergency hospital sites, hence the large dollar estimate," Becker said. "Fortunately, we have not had to build emergency hospital locations beyond the temporary tent facilities set up by the National Guard at a couple locations. We can expect the final cost to be much different than the $22 million initially quoted."

Other larger coronavirus-related expenses in SCEMD records include a $1 million estimated cost for transportation and trucking services from Estes Express Lines, a Virginia-based freight company that has several South Carolina offices.

More:Greenville leaders seek answers as percentage of positive COVID-19 tests triples

An estimated $525,000 was spent on ready-to-eat meals from Ameriqual Group LLC, an Indiana-based foods company.

And roughly $9.2 million went to Aventura Engineering for surgical gowns, according to the records. An additional $1.5 million was spent on surgical gowns from the Greenville-based Applya Occupational Strategies, which offers occupational health solutions and testing services.

Some less-expensive COVID-related purchases included $421.94 for coffee and supplies from Brawley Coffee Service in Columbia, a $2,500 food purchase from Marco's Pizza and a $36.34 camera battery and charger purchase from Walmart.com.

SC agencies, towns and colleges report COVID-19 expenses of $183 million

The money SCEMD has spent in the first phase of combating coronavirus tells only a portion of the state's total spending on the the pandemic.

According to the May 18 final report from AccelerateSC, the group tasked with revitalizing the state's economy in light of COVID-19, state agencies, higher education and technical colleges, counties, special purpose districts and municipalities have listed total expenses of $183,052,994:

► $41.7 million for payroll in coronavirus response

► $15 million on employee paid leave

► $73 million on refunding fees mainly from mainly colleges and technical schools

► $7.4 million on technology

► $6.1 million on remote working

► $2.6 million on janitorial services

► $6.1 million on remote working

► $2 million on food services.

The report estimates that these statewide expenses will reach $495 million by the end of December.

Greenville spent $640,000 in first weeks of coronavirus response

Greenville County's separate, independent purchases totaled $72,259.52 between March 15 and May 26. Those purchases are broken up into three categories: purchases by Greenville County's emergency response team, county emergency management expenditures through the Local Emergency Management Performance Grant and coronavirus-related general fund expenditures, according to data obtained from the county through a Freedom of Information Act request.

These purchases came outside of Greenville County's purchase requests through the state Emergency Management Division.

A Prisma Health employee wipes down a table as she and others prepare a community coronavirus testing site at Augusta Heights Baptist Church Saturday, May 2, 2020.

The county's general-fund expenditures included a purchase for 5,800 N95 masks from EmbroidMe in Taylors, 20,000 surgical masks from Applya Occupational Strategies and an additional 10,000 surgical masks from Safe Industries, a fire department equipment provider in Pickens County.

Greenville County's first general fund expense was on March 15 for 22 boxes of gloves, one box of masks and six tubs of CaviCide wipes from Optimus Dental Supply.

The Local Emergency Management Performance Grant purchases included computer monitors, MacBook Air laptops, printers, printer ink and travel cases for the computer equipment.

The county's purchases through the emergency response team included trash bags, batteries, dry-erase boards, Tyvek suits, safety glasses, and breakfast food and coffee from Hardee's, Bojangles, Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, Krispy Kreme and Publix.

Greenville city officials have documented expenses of nearly $640,000 related to the COVID-19 pandemic through May 18, figures released in the AccelerateSC report show.

The city’s largest expense through Sunday has been almost $258,000 for personal protective equipment, according to AccelerateSC.

Anderson County spent $264,235 in first weeks of coronavirus response

According to the report, Anderson County officials have documented expenses of $264,235 related to the pandemic. The county’s largest expense has been $92,432 on payroll.

Here is a breakdown of some counties' requests to the state Emergency Management Division for various coronavirus-related purchases. Some of the orders were joint requests from numerous counties.

► Charleston: 9 requests totaling $346,942.40 on masks, face shields, gloves, glasses and respirators and hand soap.

► Horry: 9 requests totaling $3,242,260.52 for safety glasses, gloves, disinfectant wipes, gowns, disinfectant spray and probe covers for thermometers.

► Richland: 11 requests totaling $3,186,214.84 on masks, gloves, thermometers, glasses, disinfectant wipes and gowns.

► Greenville: 9 requests totaling $49,596.02 on PPE such as face shields and respirators along with thermometers, disinfectant wipes and rubbing alcohol.

► Anderson: 1 request totaling $86,788.98 for disinfectant spray (combined request with other agencies including SCEMD).

► Pickens: 5 requests totaling $29,850.27 on safety goggles, thermometers, disinfectant liquid and face piece adapters.

► Oconee: 1 request totaling  $18,992.50 for splash-resistant gowns.

Kirk Brown contributed to this report.

Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at dgross@greenvillenews.com or on Twitter @danieljgross.