Two new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Aiken County on Thursday, just hours after Aiken Regional Medical Centers announced it was bracing for a shortage of protective medical gear such as masks, gloves and gowns due to the spread of the pandemic.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is investigating 32 additional cases of COVID-19, according to a news release. This brings the total number statewide to 456 cases in 39 counties as of Thursday.

Aiken County now has a total of four confirmed cases of coronavirus.

S.C. DHEC also announced two additional deaths related to COVID-19, brining the state’s total number of deaths to nine.

One patient was an elderly person from Kershaw County who had underlying health conditions. The second patient was an elderly person from Sumter County who also had underlying health conditions.

In anticipation of an increase in patients, Aiken Regional is requesting community donations to help offset some of the expected supply shortages at the hospital caused by the virus.

“Our associates and medical staff are busy caring for our community patients during this uncertain time of COVID-19,” said Aiken Regional Medical Centers CEO Jim O’Loughlin in a news release. “Our staff and health care providers are currently equipped to keep patients and our team safe. However, the number of COVID-19 patients is expected to rise in the coming weeks and it is expected that over the next few weeks we may experience a severe shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies; such as masks, gloves, goggles and gowns. We are asking community business leaders for your help in donating supplies now to ensure we are prepared.”

Donation tents will be set up so protective equipment can be donated on-site, the hospital said. 

The first donation drive will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Friday at the "front right corner" of the hospital, according to the news release. Donations will then be accepted from 9 to 11 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, beginning March 31 at the same location.

Donations of unused and unopened supplies such as gloves, masks and hand sanitizer will be accepted and should be placed in a well-conditioned, unwanted container, box, or bag; containers, boxes and bags will not be returned.

Donation items should be placed in the trunk or bed of vehicles. Staff will remove the items personally; donors should not exit their vehicles when dropping off supplies. 

“We thank each of you in the community for the continued support in ensuring the safety of our healthcare workers and patients,” said O’Loughlin. “Their safety is our top priority.” 

O'Loughlin's warnings of an expected increase in coronavirus cases echo the predictions of health experts at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

On Wednesday, DHEC predicted South Carolina's COVID-19 infections would rise to 2,657 cases by April 2 and to 8,053 cases by May 2.

Furthermore, both private and public labs have been affected by a national shortage of chemicals needed in the testing process of COVID-19, according to DHEC's State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell, who spoke in a press conference Thursday with other leading state officials. 

There is a backlog of over 1,600 samples at DHEC's Public Health Laboratory waiting to be tested due to this shortage, and private labs are also experiencing delays, Bell said. A little over 2,000 tests have been done at the public lab. 

It is due to these shortages that DHEC is only recommending people who are displaying severe or worsening symptoms of COVID-19 (such as high fever or respiratory problems) be tested for the virus. Other patients who are less ill should recover at home through symptomatic care – medicine to treat symptoms such as fever – because there is no known treatment specifically for COVID-19, Bell said. 

"This will allow our healthcare systems and our healthcare providers to give care to those who are most seriously ill, and who need it most," Bell said.

DHEC Public Health Director Nick Davidson said during the news conference that there are 5,528 unoccupied beds in hospitals across the state, in large part due to the cancelation of elective procedures. About 55% of the total hospital beds are already occupied.  

"That number has been increasing since Monday," Davidson said. 

Of the 1,260 ventilators across the state 180 are currently in use, Davidson said. 

Bell also warned that people should not expect individual notifications that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

"We've now moved from disease containment to a disease mitigation strategy," Bell said. 

At the news conference, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said no lockdown has been ordered for the state of South Carolina.

“People are asking about drastic orders, such as shelter in place… and all those sorts of things,” McMaster said. "We will do that if and only if it becomes necessary to take those steps… We will know based on the data, on the facts, and the science… and we’ll do it on the basis of nothing else. If that time comes, you will certainly know, and we will say so.”

McMaster said he had “great faith” in the “common sense” of South Carolinians to willingly follow self-quarantine and social distancing practices.

Only two cities – Columbia and Charleston – have issued shelter in place orders in South Carolina. 

However, Bell warned the way the pandemic unfolds in the coming weeks in South Carolina will determine whether stricter measures are necessary. 

"As the virus spreads, we could be called on to make even more sacrifices," Bell said. 

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.