Researchers: Don’t blame northern vacationers for rise in S.C. COVID-19 cases

Updated: Jul. 18, 2020 at 10:50 AM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW/CBS News) - Harvard University researchers say northern vacationers are not responsible for a rise in COVID-19 cases across the south.

The Harvard Global Health Institute does not agree with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, who said the southern surge is because of people traveling after Memorial Day.

"It's independent of whether you reopened or didn't reopen, when you reopened," Redfield said. "We're of the view that there was something else that was the driver."

But Dr. Thomas Tsai of Harvard's Public Health School disagrees.

"The conditions in South Carolina were ripe for the infections to take place," Tsai said. "You could have as many vacationers as you want coming in from Brooklyn going to Myrtle Beach."

A few weeks after many lockdown restrictions were eased in southern states, Harvard says cases started rising by June 1, before holiday travel would show most infections.

"Largely because states had opened too soon and didn't take advantage of the time that was so dearly bought by flattening the curve," Tsai said.

He says states like South Carolina didn't mandate masks statewide or improve testing capabilities in the spring, so the national backlog is making this summer rise worse.

"Commercial laboratories are taking in some places over a week to get the results back to individuals," Tsai said. "Mathematically, that's a case that becomes very hard to use that information to change behavior."

Harvard's model says stay-at-home orders are needed to contain COVID-19 statewide and in most of South Carolina's counties because he says rates show "uncontrollable spread" of the virus.

Tsai says states need to consider stronger measures as school approaches, not just because of the data.

"We have to take the focus away from just percentages and numbers," Tsai said. "Those numbers actually are real people, real family members in the hospitals and potentially dying."

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggested South Carolina was among more than a dozen states in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases and should revert to more stringent protective measures.

The report listed South Carolina as having more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population as well as a higher-than-10-percent positive rate for COVID-19 test results.

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