It may have been the dollar bills he exchanged with a cashier in a mini-market or the merchandise he bought at a large retail store.
But something Wayne Wells did exposed him to coronavirus, a disease that sweeps South Carolina.
In mid-April, he was in the hospital, fighting death while the coronavirus squeezed his chest, making him gasp and cough, alone in a sterile room without his family.
His recovery was slow, but after 10 days, he finally left the hospital, grateful and determined to warn others about the “very, very terrible” illness that no one should be able to endure.
Wells, 61, is one of the lucky ones from Clarendon County, a community that handles an unusually large number of coronavirus cases.
Clarendon, an eastern county in South Carolina known for its spicy barbecue sauce and its proximity to Lake Marion, has been hit more by the coronavirus than anywhere else in South Carolina.
The municipality leads the state in per capita cases of the disease and is among the top five in deaths related to COVID 19, although Clarendon has only 34,000 residents. Since the beginning of March, at least 12 deaths have been reported in Clarendon County.
Only four much larger counties – Richland, Greenville, Lexington and Horry – have had as many or more people dying of coronavirus as Clarendon County, according to statistics released by state officials on Monday. Each of these counties has at least 298,000 residents. Data released on Monday showed that Greenville led the state with 20 coronavirus-related deaths, with Richland second with 19. Horry and Lexington had 12 deaths.
The postal code serving Manning, the county’s main population center with 4,000 residents, had 120 cases of coronavirus. State health officials suspect that the community may have up to 737 cases that have not yet been verified.
Wells, an Army veteran and furniture maker who grew up in rural Clarendon County, said the coronavirus threat is real and should be a concern for everyone in the area, which is about a 70-minute drive east of Columbia. .
The Silver community resident said he started to feel bad on Thursday, April 9, with his health getting worse the next day. With fever and cough, he could barely breathe on Saturday, April 11. So he visited the hospital in Manning and was admitted.
“The first three or four nights were really difficult,” he said. “I was short of breath. I was coughing a lot. My legs hurt too. After five days, my legs were hurting a lot, so they started giving me pain medication.”
Wells said he had some latent health problems, including seizures that may have contributed to the coronavirus attack. But these conditions never bothered him so much that he couldn’t get around – until he entered the hospital.
“It looked like someone threw a brick at you because of the cough,” he said of how he felt. “I had to have oxygen the whole time I was there ..”
“I couldn’t speak or say anything. I had no energy. I was out of breath.”
No one knows why Manning and Clarendon County had so much time with the coronavirus. Part of this may be because of large meetings that took place before anyone knew of the social distance.
A March 14 funeral that drew several hundred people generated many comments. A woman who reportedly attended the funeral died weeks after the coronavirus.
The problem may also be related to Manning’s proximity as a stop on Interstate 95 and the lack of information reaching rural residents on how to stay out of large groups.
Wells, Senator Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon and Mayor of Manning, Julia Nelson, said they were aware of the big meetings that took place, long after Governor Henry McMaster begged people to stay home to reduce the risk of spreading COVID 19.
People having barbecues in their homes or gathering to gossip in rural convenience stores are a concern. Some people do not understand the severity of the disease until they touch them personally, Wells said.
“They think it’s someone else’s problem, as long as they don’t have it,” he said.
Nelson said he thinks many of the coronavirus cases in Clarendon County are linked to the workplace or careless people who visit major retailers without taking precautions. Some churches also continued to meet.
People working in the home health sector or in nursing homes, or their patients, were injured, she said.
“It’s really affecting us a lot,” said Nelson. “As far as we can tell, the main people affected are those who care for people, whether in a facility or providing domestic services, and those who work in different factories or industries.”
While Clarendon is having problems, few people besides Wells are sharing their stories of the battle against COVID-19.
Those touched by COVID-19 fear being rejected forever because they contracted the disease or because their loved ones died of coronavirus, Wells and Nelson said.
“People think they are rejected,” said Wells of the perceived stigma of having contracted the coronavirus. “They think it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Mayor Nelson, who grew up in Manning, said he never saw such a threat.
Hurricanes like Hugo, the legendary storm of 1989, have periodically destroyed the community in and around Manning, but Nelson said the coronavirus is a threat that no one can see.
“With COVID-19 it was totally different,” she said. “It is invisible and there are no charts with predictions of where you can go next or when you can finish.”
The problem has been such that a local program for the disabled and special needs has been closed. The program took people from all over the county to old Manning High School, where they would work or receive attention during the day.
For Wells, father of two, one of the most difficult parts of his ordeal was facing the disease without seeing his family. Because the coronavirus is so contagious – and potentially deadly – the hospital in Manning did not allow visitors to see patients going through the ordeal, he said. Many hospitals have similar policies.
He tried to communicate with relatives via cell phone or Facebook, but “for the first three days I couldn’t speak,” said Wells. “I had no energy. I was out of breath.”
He is a volunteer at the local hospital that treated him, but Wells said he doesn’t think working there exposed him. He stopped working weeks before he was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Wells thinks that several trips he made to the store to buy goods may have caused the coronavirus infection, despite his best efforts to avoid COVID-19.
“I was taking every precaution,” he said. “I was washing my hands, disinfecting my house. I was wearing my mask. But sometimes I went out and got some money. I’m thinking it was the money I paid.”
Regardless, Wells said he expects people to learn from his experience. His ordeal should reinforce for people the danger of a COVID-19 infection and show them that there is hope, he said.
“You can improve,” he said, noting that his faith in God helped him.
Their survival cheered up team members at McLeod Health’s Manning hospital, said Stacy Mosier, coordinator of hospital system volunteers. When he was taken out of the hospital last week, team members lined the halls, clapping loudly for their friend and fellow volunteer.
“I’m starting to cry now, I was moved,” said Mosier. “It is a reminder of how precious life is.”
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