COLUMBIA — Senators questioned Wednesday why South Carolina’s public health agency hasn’t moved quicker in finding a new director to lead the state through the pandemic.
The agency’s governing board intends to name a replacement for Rick Toomey in November, chairman Mark Elam told a Senate panel.
That’s six months after the director of the agency that’s supposed to be guiding South Carolina’s COVID-19 response announced his resignation. It likely won’t be until January that his successor officially takes the helm.
Senators seem stunned the Department of Health and Environmental Control didn’t begin the search until sometime within the last month. Elam couldn’t recall exactly when the agency hired an outside job-recruiting firm.
“We felt comfortable with our acting director,” Elam said about Marshall Taylor, who stepped into the role in June for the second time this year and his fourth time overall at the agency. Toomey took a two-week absence in April for health reasons.
Senators commended Taylor but noted he’s an attorney, not a health expert.
“It’s disturbing that the position’s been vacant since May and we’re in the middle of the worst health care crisis in a hundred years, and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency on the part of DHEC to fill the top spot,” said Sen. Dick Harpootlian. Taylor is “not a health care professional, and they need somebody who’s background is health care and medicine. I’m concerned that DHEC is not in a hurry.”
The agency is looking mostly in-state for a new director. Applicants include DHEC employees, Elam said.
“I strongly believe we have enough great people in South Carolina to focus our search on South Carolinians,” he said.
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The search also didn’t start sooner, he said, because the board didn’t want to hire someone and have that person on the job for several months, only to be rejected by senators. The board’s nominee must be approved by the Senate. The agency’s timeline expected the confirmation process to occur in January, Elam said.
Harpootlian called that excuse “inexplicable.” If the board had moved quicker, senators almost certainly would’ve come back to take up such an important appointment, he said.
The Senate has been in special session the last two weeks — a session created by law back in May — and is expected to confirm several appointments to other agencies before adjourning Thursday.
“The message I want to deliver is, considering the situation we’re in, I think it’s extremely important that DHEC have a full-time director as soon as possible,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, chairman of the panel questioning DHEC officials. “DHEC is the point agency on most of the things happening in the state right now. … I think it’s important for us and the public to understand there’s strong capable leadership at DHEC with a permanent director.”
In hearings over the last few months, senators have been vocally frustrated with DHEC for not drastically expanding COVID-19 testing across the state quickly and not presenting concrete plans to do so. Taylor has repeatedly said the lags are part of national shortages.
South Carolina ranks 10th worst nationwide with newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases per capita, and second highest in the percentage of people being tested having the virus, according to a report Sunday from the White House coronavirus task force.
The agency’s had several leadership turnovers this year while struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s also operating with an interim public health director — also for the second time this year — after Dr. Joan Duwve, who arrived in April from Indiana, decided earlier this month to take a job leading Ohio’s public health agency. Hours later, she withdrew from that role but, after some confusion, DHEC announced she wasn’t staying there either.
Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.