The leader of the board that directs South Carolina's health and environmental agency promised Wednesday to select a new director by November as senators questioned how the agency is handling its emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has been without a director since June when Rick Toomey stepped down to spend more time with his family. Toomey worked for the agency for 15 months after DHEC spent 17 months looking for a new director.
Agency attorney Marshall Taylor is acting director — the fourth time he has taken that role in his DHEC career.
It is critical with the COVID-19 pandemic that DHEC hire a new director as soon as possible, making sure that hire is also right for the job, state Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey told DHEC Board Chairman Mark Elam at a Wednesday subcommittee meeting.
"DHEC is the point agency on most of the things happening in the state right now," said Massey, a Republican from Edgefield.
Elam said the agency hired a firm to help find a new director and is focusing on in-state candidates. He promised the board would vote on the director in November and have that name ready for Senate confirmation in January when the General Assembly returns.
Sen. Dick Harpootlian questioned Taylor on DHEC's powers under the state of emergency amid the pandemic, inquiring why the agency seems hesitant to shut down bars and restaurants that break pandemic rules on masks and crowd sizes when they clearly have the right to do so during a public health emergency.
The Columbia Democrat, a frequent critic of bars that break rules and cause quality of life issues in his district near the University of South Carolina, cited a bar in Horry County that had hundreds of people without masks during a motorcycle rally in June.
"If you went in the kitchen and found human excrement, you would shut them down right then," Harpootlian said.
Taylor said the governor's emergency orders leaned on local law enforcement to handle the enforcement of pandemic rules.
Senators also asked about the COVID-19 case numbers reported to the agency. On Tuesday, DHEC announced a Georgia hospital system failed to report to the agency the results of 15,000 tests done on South Carolina residents over the past six months. About 2,000 of the tests were positive, so tracing people to try to stop the spread of the virus was impossible.
Taylor said he had confidence in DHEC's COVID-19 numbers, but they were only as good as what was reported by labs.
"DHEC reports what is reported to DHEC," Taylor said.
The state's COVID-19 numbers are down from their July peak, when South Carolina was one of the worst states in the nation for new cases. But the state has reported 293 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, which ranks ninth in the country for new cases per capita, according to data kept by The Associated Press.
DHEC wants the rate of tests that come back positive to fall below 5% to feel confident the pandemic is coming under control. South Carolina hasn't approached that rate in months — and, according to data collected by the agency, is second in the country for highest COVID-19 positivity rates.