Charleston and Clemson, S.C. – Healthy Me – Healthy SC (HMHSC), a program developed in partnership by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and Clemson University, will provide COVID-19 testing support to the rural and underserved areas of the Midlands and Upstate regions of South Carolina.
Across the state, rural and underserved communities experience disparities in access to COVID-19 screening, testing, prevention and treatment. With the reinvigoration of the program and a focus on the state’s current public health crisis, HMHSC will deploy a mobile testing team to conduct screenings and collections in rural and underserved areas, focusing on the Upstate and the Midlands. Mobile testing sites through HMHSC kicked off in Walhalla, South Carolina, on Thursday, July 30, with the goal of providing weekly screening sessions over the course of the next six months.
Testing sites will be set up at various locations to collect COVID-19 respiratory specimens from both walk-up and drive-through patients. Pre-screening will not be required. Members of the community are asked to bring photo identification and an insurance card if they have one. Insurance is not required to be seen; however, the CARES Act does require MUSC to bill insurance providers if patients do have insurance. The test is free to the community.
Faculty members from multiple departments at Clemson and MUSC are engaged in these statewide efforts. Clemson University has combined resources and experts into a multi-disciplinary team charged with working in partnership with MUSC to implement the HMHSC COVID-19 testing initiative for the state. The Cooperative Extension Services will continue to coordinate screening sites and market and promote screening clinics. Concurrently, the Clemson Joseph F. Sullivan Center (JFSC) will operate the testing team, which will serve as an independent screening unit in support of Clemson’s contribution to the MUSC mission.
The mobile setup allows care providers to rotate sites, reaching underserved and rural populations experiencing barriers to health care access for COVID-19 screening and testing. MUSC Health was first in the nation to launch a combined virtual urgent care platform and drive-through specimen collection site. Now, it is sharing a version of that model with partners to expand testing to more communities.
Michelle Parisi, director of Nutrition and Health Extension Programs and assistant professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences at Clemson said, “Clemson Cooperative Extension is happy to be a part of the HMHSC holistic approach to health and well-being for South Carolina citizens. With educational programs established in every county of the state, the Health Extension has been a trusted source of scientific information for rural and underserved communities for over 100 years. These longstanding relationships assist HMHSC in bridging the gap between health resources and underserved communities in our state.”
After more than a year of successful pilot programs, HMHSC was founded in 2019 by MUSC and Clemson University as a collaborative, statewide program to improve health care access and address health inequities. HMHSC is made possible by funds from the South Carolina General Assembly and the support of Gov. Henry McMaster and benefits from resources designated explicitly for health innovations. The program leverages MUSC and Clemson’s statewide reach and collective expertise in education, health and community outreach to expand health care options to underserved regions of the state.
Since the inception of the program, HMHSC has focused on areas of need, including infant mortality, childhood obesity, cancer prevention and pain management. Over the past two years, these initiatives were targeted in rural Anderson, Barnwell and Williamsburg counties, the program’s pilot counties. The program extends traditional clinic services by deploying a mobile health van at HMHSC sites, which increases the reach and impact of each location. In addition, access to MUSC’s robust telehealth network and coordination with Clemson University Cooperative Extension locations at each HMHSC site enable the expertise of health care specialists to reach residents in rural and underserved parts of South Carolina. Under the new leadership of David Sudduth, executive director of HMHSC and program manager Kapri Kreps Rhodes, the program will now be extending its services by offering support for communities in need of COVID-19 testing.
“Our mission is to build healthier communities by offering innovative solutions that establish partnerships and leverage resources throughout South Carolina. And our response to COVID-19 allows us to make both an immediate and lasting impact on the health of South Carolina citizens,” said Sudduth.
The HMHSC COVID-19 testing initiative is supported by a subgrant that falls under recent legislation to expand testing programs throughout the state. On May 18, the South Carolina General Assembly and Gov. McMaster called upon MUSC, the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the South Carolina Hospital Association to develop a statewide testing plan for COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a disproportionate number of COVID-19 positive cases and virus-related deaths in racial and ethnic minority groups due to contributing factors such as living in rural communities that are geographically distant from social and medical resources for testing and treating symptoms of COVID-19. Testing is critical to preventing the spread of the virus by informing treatment protocols, addressing hotspots and tracking the virus’s progression. Partnering hospitals, health systems, clinics and programs like HMHSC are essential to expanding testing opportunities.
The South Carolina General Assembly has designated $25 million to expand testing programs in rural communities and among those who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus. Vulnerable populations include the elderly; people who have underlying conditions, like heart disease and diabetes; and African Americans who, due to well-documented health disparities, are more likely to suffer from one of these conditions and have much less access to health care. HMHSC will contribute to the overarching goal of statewide testing that results in a minimum of 2% of a demographically representative sample of the South Carolina population tested each month.
“Partnerships are about joining forces to create the greatest impact,” said Caroline Brown, chief external affairs officer at MUSC. “MUSC and Clemson’s complementary strengths and mutual goal to improve health is what inspired the creation of HMHSC. Expanding the collaboration to provide COVID-19 testing to South Carolinians who are at higher risk for contracting the disease due to social determinants of health shows that we are adapting to fight COVID-19 in novel ways together.”