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ANDY BRACK: DHEC has trouble walking, chewing gum in pandemic

ANDY BRACK: DHEC has trouble walking, chewing gum in pandemic

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The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control isn’t exactly a confidence-inspiring agency.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic stretched its capacities and morale, the agency was a mess. The Great Recession of a dozen years ago caused big staffing and funding cuts. Its infectious disease unit, for example, lost half of its funding and 100 jobs, according to an April 2020 story in The Post and Courier.

A few years later came more cuts as then-DHEC Director Catherine Templeton wielded her “buzzsaw” through the agency. And in 2013, she had to apologize for the agency’s slow response in dealing with a tuberculosis outbreak that infected more than 100 people in Greenwood County. According to news reports, DHEC learned about an infected man in March, but didn’t test schoolchildren, 53 of whom got the illness, until the end of May.

Two years later, former Gov. Nikki Haley used the agency, whose directors are appointed by the governor, as a political pawn to investigate three abortion clinics. The department was put between a rock and a hard place. Eventually, it extricated itself after another uncomfortable spin in the spotlight.

And then in 2016 came another embarrassment -- a stealthy rewrite of abortion regulations that put its policy culture in question and led to calls for it to be disbanded. At the time, we observed, “Lawmakers should investigate the policy culture at DHEC and, in our view, split the agency to reduce its power. It’s time to say the heck with DHEC.”

Last year came the Great Pandemic, which has stretched limited resources and stressed state government in never-expected ways. DHEC has been criticized for slow responses, poor communication, lackluster leadership and being the pawn of, yes, the current governor, Henry McMaster.

Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, is so frustrated that he is again calling for the agency to be split into a stand-alone health department with its environmental duties to be distributed to other agencies. Just before the 2021 legislative session opened, he said in a press release, “No one is in control at DHEC and hasn’t been for quite some time. … [My legislation] will ensure government runs more efficiently and will give each agency clearly defined responsibilities.”

So now comes more egg for the agency’s face: A data screw-up on the number of COVID-19 cases at a time when South Carolina is one of the nation’s hotspots for the virus.

On Jan. 16, a Saturday, the agency announced there had been a software problem with an internal database operated by a vendor. The result? Six days of incomplete data on number of new coronavirus cases in South Carolina. The problem was fixed, the agency stressed, and the data had been updated.

“No data was lost or breached; there were delays in how electronic lab reports were being processed into the database,” DHEC spokesman Laura Renwick told Statehouse Report. “On Saturday, we also issued a historic breakdown for cases for the days that the database error occurred. While it’s unfortunate that this technical issue occurred, having a few days of delayed case counts in no way affected our public health actions.

But oddly enough, in fact, the data in question included what turned out to be the single biggest day ever of new cases on Jan. 8. DHEC initially reported 3,747 new cases, only to adjust it to 6,824 cases on Jan. 16. Over the six-day period of data instability, the agency reported 19,455 cases -- some 5,426 less than updated on Jan. 16.

You see where this is going? Data problems that happened when the largest number of cases ever experienced on a single day occurred in a new virus hotspot? Really?

DHEC’s actions in recent years and its lackluster leadership during this crushing pandemic that has infected more than 366,000 South Carolinians certainly do not inspire. We’ve heard some say it feels like the agency is flying a plane while trying to build it.

After years of underperformance and being a puppet of the governor, it’s time for the agency to be restructured into something new and seek to restore its credibility among citizens.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@statehousereport.com.

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