How South Carolina's Rural Communities Are Trying To Survive The Pandemic
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Despite high rates of coronavirus, South Carolina is reopening movie theaters, arenas and stadiums. The governor wants schools to offer in-person classes, but there is still no statewide mandate requiring masks. And now, some rural areas are dealing with a late summer spike, and they are doing so with few resources. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen reports.
VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: It is a Thursday morning, and Pastor Donald Greene is serving people outside his church.
DONALD GREENE: Good morning. You got your box already?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I have.
GREENE: Thank you. How are you doing? You doing well? Good to see you.
HANSEN: Hundreds of drivers wrap around the Andrew Chapel Baptist parking lot to get a box of fresh produce.
GREENE: We try to, you know, give these families two boxes if we can because they line up at about 5:30 in the morning. They're here, waiting.
HANSEN: This is Orangeburg, a rural community about an hour northwest of Charleston. The county is one of the poorest in the state, and more than half of its population of 86,000 is Black. African Americans have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. What's more, there is just one hospital for people in four counties. Pastor Greene says the virus has done more than just make people sick. It's highlighted decades of inequality.
GREENE: We are living in a season of exposure. And when your infrastructure is not in place, everything's exposed. So all of our leaks, all of our cracks, everything that has been going on in our community is now - has come to the surface.
HANSEN: Wanda Smith (ph), her sister and two grandchildren are also at the church waiting in their car. The 69-year-old says, last month, they each caught the coronavirus. Smith got so sick, she rushed to the emergency room. She says it was packed, and she spent much of the day in a hallway.
WANDA SMITH: Finally, they sent me to an overflow area. And there I was there in the room with three other people who had the virus. By that time, I didn't care where I was. I was just achy and just sick.
HANSEN: Charles Williams is the CEO of the Regional Medical Center.
CHARLES WILLIAMS: We really were about to pop. We had over 60 patients in house. And we said, OK, we have to have a valve.
HANSEN: That's 60 coronavirus patients in a hospital that can handle no more than 162 beds. At times, they're almost all full. So the hospital has set up a giant white tent outside.
(SOUNDBITE OF TENT UNZIPPING)
HANSEN: Inside, coronavirus patients on the mend will soon be treated here, freeing up the hospital for those who are critical. Dozens have died, including a member of the hospital staff. Williams has even asked retired health care workers to return, to fill in for those who become ill. He says he's doing everything he can with just one hospital.
WILLIAMS: We are the end of the road for these four counties. There's no big brother. We're big brother. And we want to make sure that we proactively plan to care for this community.
HANSEN: Nurse Sarah Haddow (ph) doesn't know what's to blame for the recent spike, but it's frustrating.
SARAH HADDOW: There's so many people who think, oh, well, this is just Orangeburg. Like, it's not going to get bad here. And it's like, how much more do we have to tell y'all? Like, they're putting a tent in front of the hospital because we might run out of beds.
HANSEN: Back at Andrew Chapel Baptist Church, Pastor Greene is preaching.
GREENE: Hey. Where's your mask?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How you doing?
GREENE: Where's your mask?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Right here.
GREENE: Put it on, then we can talk.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK. I got you. I got you.
GREENE: Can't talk until you put your mask on.
HANSEN: He's encouraging people to wear a mask. And he's praying he'll be able to continue to feed a community that has been exposed to and left exposed by a deadly virus. For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Orangeburg, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.