S. Carolina public health director no longer headed to Ohio

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Less than six hours after one of South Carolina's top health officials was reported to be leaving to head Ohio's health department, the governor of Ohio said she was withdrawing her name from consideration.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted Thursday evening that Joan Duwve, who joined South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control as public health director in April, cited personal reasons in her decision to no longer pursue the job leading the Ohio Department of Health. The announcement followed tweets from DeWine earlier in the day naming Duwve to lead the agency.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.

“My understanding is that she has family in Ohio and she is going to be closer to her family,” acting DHEC Director Marshall Taylor had said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, following DeWine's initial announcement. Taylor said he learned of the news the day of the announcement. “Actually, this is a promotion for Dr. Duwve, and so we're very happy for her.”

Duwve is not the first high-ranking official who had plans to leave the state health department since the start of the outbreak. In May, director Rick Toomey announced he was stepping down for health reasons less than 15 months after he took over the agency.

State leaders also announced Thursday that a plan is in the works for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. They stressed, however, that there is no confirmed date for when such a vaccine will be available to the general public. That plan will prioritize high-risk individuals, frontline health care workers and critical infrastructure employees when limited doses of the vaccine first arrive, said Stephen White, the state's immunization director.

The announcement follows a letter from federal health officials last month asking states to be prepared to begin distributing a vaccine by Nov. 1. White said the state health department aims to prepare a distribution plan for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the end of this month.

On Thursday, South Carolina health officials reported 264 new cases and 24 additional deaths. Still, experts warn numbers could rise again following Labor Day gatherings and the reopening of schools for in-person instruction. The state health department has counted more than 120,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,800 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Earlier in the day, Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, praised South Carolina for “real progress” since her last visit with Gov. Henry McMaster in July.

Birx visited the University of South Carolina in Columbia on Thursday as part of a tour of the states. She said a federal testing surge team would arrive in the coming week in Columbia — where the University of South Carolina has tracked more than 1,900 cases among students and employees since Aug. 1 — to implement widescale testing.

Also Thursday, McMaster issued recommendations to the state legislature on how to spend up to $763 million in the second phase of federal coronavirus relief funds. Those recommendations include replenishing the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund by $450 million, reimbursing state and municipal agencies for pandemic-related costs and providing grants for small business and non-profits that did not receive federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.

___

Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.