During its Tuesday board meeting, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spent hours interviewing candidates for a new director, and the agency plans to select a candidate to submit for S.C. Senate confirmation by the end of the year.
“We continue to make good progress in our search for DHEC's next director,” Mark Elam, agency board chair, said in a statement. “The board is committed to a thorough, focused hiring process that will identify the agency's next leader who will be taking the helm of our state's public health and environmental agency during a complicated and challenging time. As the ongoing pandemic looms, it's never been more important that we find the right person to lead the agency.”
Elam said the board was “inspired and impressed” by the pool of applicants.
As of Thursday, the agency had interviewed nine of 65 applicants, according to a news release from DHEC. A nationwide search is continuing, and finalists have not yet been selected.
Rick Toomey resigned as DHEC director in May, citing recent health problems and a desire to spend more time with family. Dr. Joan Duwve resigned as the agency’s director of public health in September.
The DHEC director, who must be approved by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, will serve a four-year term.
The search is taking place during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which as of Thursday had claimed 4,145 lives in South Carolina, with another 321 probable deaths attributed to COVID-19 by DHEC. Twenty-one new confirmed deaths and two probable deaths were reported Thursday, when 1,754 new confirmed and 137 probable cases were announced. The percent positive of 7,360 new tests was 23.8%, according to DHEC.
DHEC also reported an 80% utilization rate of state hospital inpatient beds and a 79% utilization rate of ICU beds, with a 75% acute hospital bed occupancy rate in Richland County.
In an update Thursday, DHEC officials said a COVID-19 vaccine could begin arriving to S.C. distribution sites by Dec. 14. The vaccine will be distributed in phases, state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said, with the first round going to health care workers and long-term care facility residents.
Friday saw 2,470 confirmed new cases and 90 probable cases, the highest single-day total in the state since the pandemic began.
In a news release, DHEC urged mask wearing and social distancing, as well as limiting contact with those outside an individual's household and routine testing.
"We have increasing evidence that household spread is contributing to new cases," the DHEC statement said. "This is why it's so important for anyone identified as having had close contact with COVID-19 to follow quarnatine guidelines, even if you don't feel ill. Asymptomatic individuals are spreading the virus."i