Opinion: How DHEC and SC residents must work together to stop spread of coronavirus
It’s no secret why COVID-19 commands the time, attention, and resources of our entire state and nation. A virus like we have never seen before, it has infected hundreds of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands have died. The respiratory illness is putting every facet of our public health system to a test – from disease control experts to health-care providers to residents.
While it is the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s responsibility to lead efforts to protect the health of communities across our state, COVID-19 is teaching residents they too play a vital role in preventing disease. It also has sparked public interest in the work DHEC does.
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As Gov. Henry McMaster leads South Carolina’s response, DHEC collaborates with his office, other federal, state and local officials, providers, and community partners to stop the spread.
DHEC has a skilled cadre of public health professionals who labor daily to address disease threats, whether seasonal flu or COVID-19. They monitor more than 50 reportable communicable diseases and respond to outbreaks and other communicable disease events. The earlier we can detect how the disease is behaving, the better we are able to develop a plan to protect residents.
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Oftentimes, this work goes unnoticed. That’s a good thing; it means potential health threats are being prevented from becoming larger issues that threaten the general population.
But COVID-19 is different. It is a greater threat and people are rightly concerned. With it has come heightened interest in DHEC’s disease control efforts.
Unlike doctors, who treat diseases one patient at a time, DHEC addresses disease for the state’s entire population. Instead of treating a single person infected by COVID-19, DHEC's task is to monitor, detect, and investigate the disease and work with partners to provide timely, effective responses to protect us all.
That’s the essence of public health: ensuring the well-being of entire populations, which can be as small as a local neighborhood or school or as large as a region or the entire state. Or they can be subsets of populations, such as high-risk groups.
For example, data reveal that African Americans are affected by COVID-19 at an elevated rate. African Americans make up about 27 percent of the population but, as of April 14, they comprise 41 percent of COVID-19 cases for which race was collected and 56 percent of related deaths. African Americans are disproportionately affected by conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. People with such health conditions are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Such data call for a response. Intense outreach and prevention efforts are needed to help control spread among African Americans and others, such as older residents, who are at higher risk. DHEC continues to sharpen our messaging to ensure populations at greater risk are made aware of available testing sites and resources.
But this isn’t just a DHEC responsibility. You can help. Start by heeding prevention recommendations:
- Stay at home as much as possible.
- Practice social distancing.
- Avoid touching frequently touched items.
- Wash your hands regularly.
- If you must go out for work or essentials, wear a homemade cloth mask.
If we each do our part, together, we can stop the spread.
Dr. Linda Bell is South Carolina's state epidemiologist and director of DHEC’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Prevention and Control.