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Is there a coronavirus case on Hilton Head? Officials request more info from hospital

The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) — Lucas Smolcic Larson The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

March 26-- Mar. 26--The Hilton Head Town Council will request that Hilton Head Hospital and state health officials share daily information on patients being treated for COVID-19 on the island.

The move may prove largely symbolic, as Mayor John McCann said the hospital's board has voted to provide "no information at all."

Beaufort County has 29 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but hospital officials have refused to say whether any of its patients have tested positive.

"One tenet of crisis management is to present facts over speculation or rumors," said council member David Ames, who voted for the request for information at an emergency council meeting on Thursday afternoon.

McCann and council member Bill Harkins were the only two to vote against the request for more information. Harkins cited "informal conversations" with the hospital's CEO, Jeremy Clark, and argued that residents should assume there are already COVID-19 cases on Hilton Head.

McCann said he had spoken with hospital officials and was aware that its board had already voted to provide "no information at all" to local officials or the public, instead directing inquiries to DHEC.

"We understand the concerns many members of our community have as it relates to the COVID-19 virus. For the safety of our staff and patients, we will continue to respect our patients' right to privacy and we will continue reporting to public health officials under established legal reporting protocols," wrote Daisy Burroughs, a spokesperson for Tenet Healthcare, the for-profit company that operates Hilton Head Hospital.

'How close to home is it?'

Town council members who supported the letter to hospital officials on Hilton Head said that knowledge of local cases of the virus was critical to their decision-making as the outbreak worsens.

"How close to home is it?" asked Ames, saying that residents would act differently if they knew their neighbors had the virus.

"Without the basic information of knowing where we stand ... we put everybody in jeopardy," said council member Tamara Becker.

Harkins was the first to oppose the request for information at Thursday's meeting. "The odds are we do have cases here," he said, citing the cases reported in Beaufort County by state health officials. Harkins complimented the medical providers at Hilton Head Hospital and said they did not need to go out of their way to "highlight" any specific infectious disease.

"I don't think we have to get down to the micro level of saying 'where are we seeing it?'" said Harkins.

Harkins said he had spoken with Clark, the hospital's CEO. "They don't want to draw unnecessary attention and develop unwarranted anxiety on the part of the healthcare workers that are currently strained throughout the country and here in Beaufort County," said Harkins.

Clark did not return a call requesting comment before the meeting.

Are there COVID-19 cases on Hilton Head?

Hilton Head Hospital refuses to say whether any of its patients has tested positive for COVID-19, despite multiple inquiries from the newspapers dating back to March 12.

The hospital cannot release this information because of "patient privacy laws," said spokesperson Burroughs in emails. When asked, Burroughs did not say which laws she was citing.

Nationwide, health officials have said a lack of confirmed cases does not mean the virus is not present in a community because of how easily it spreads and limitations on COVID-19 testing.

Many South Carolina hospitals are providing updates on coronavirus cases to the public and news media, some ahead of daily notifications from state health officials. These include nonprofit facilities like Roper St. Francis in Charleston and a Prisma Health facilities in Columbia as well as for-profit hospitals like Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, owned by the national HCA Healthcare chain.

Burroughs referred questions about coronavirus cases to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has declined to release information beyond county of residence for confirmed COVID-19 cases, citing patient privacy.

State Epidemiologist Linda Bell said Monday the expectation of having specific information on where cases are located within a county could lead to "complacency" and a "false sense of security," encouraging everyone to follow prevention measures.

In a letter sent Tuesday, the S.C. Association of Counties requested that Gov. Henry McMaster direct health officials to share information about the location of coronavirus cases with first responders, who are "flying blind," according the letter. In response, the governor has ordered officials to share the location of people who test postive by zip code, according to a letter sent Tuesday.

Hilton Head's Town Council also voted Thursday to ask DHEC to share zipcode-level information on new cases.

The Town Council also to authorize a resolution asking McMaster to issue a statewide mandatory stay-at-home order.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

What you should know about the coronavirus

The coronavirus is spreading in the United States. After originating in China late last year, the disease has now led to several cases in the U.S., including several deaths.

Officials are urging people to take precautions to avoid getting sick, and to avoid spreading the disease if they do contract it.

Click the drop-down icon on this card for more on the virus and what you should do to keep yourself and those around you healthy.

What is coronavirus?

Coronavirus is an infection of the respiratory system similar to the flu. Coronaviruses are a class of viruses that regularly cause illnesses among adults and children, but this outbreak has spawned a new disease called COVID-19, a particularly harsh respiratory condition that can lead to death.

Health officials believe COVID-19 spread from animals to humans somewhere in China. The CDC believes the virus is now spreading through communities in some affected geographic areas. It spreads among humans by physical person-to-person contact, including via coughs. That's why health officials urge sick individuals to avoid contact with other people.

For more information, visit the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are similar to the flu and include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

How can I stop the spread of the coronavirus?

Wash your hands regularly with soap and water, and cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

If you develop symptoms similar to the coronavirus, you should seek medical attention. Stay home from work or school and avoid contact with others. It can take up to 14 days after coming into contact with the virus to develop symptoms.

COVID-19 is a new condition and there's much about the disease we still don't understand. For now, taking precautions is the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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