Dr. Edward Simmer answers questions from the South Carolina Senate Medical Affairs committee in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Simmer was nominated to lead the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control by the agency's board in December and must be confirmed by the state Senate before he can take charge. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate hired a military doctor on Thursday to be the new director of the state's beleaguered health and environmental agency.

Dr. Edward Simmer's nomination to run the Department of Health and Environmental Control was approved 40-1 by the Senate.

The director's job had been vacant for more than seven months as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. The last search for a director in 2017 and 2018 took 17 months.

DHEC was criticized last summer when the state was among the worst in the nation for COVID-19 cases and more recently for an uneven and slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines that still has the state trailing most others in getting health care workers and older people immunized.

During his nomination hearing earlier this week, Simmer promised to improve coronavirus vaccine distribution and use the lessons learned from the pandemic to improve rural health, fight hunger and do a better job of community outreach to keep people healthy.

After getting the job, Simmer said he was honored to serve the state in such a challenging time. “I am confident that we will get through this and come back stronger than before,” he said in a statement released by the agency.

As a medical doctor, Simmer said he doesn’t have a lot of experience with environmental regulation. But he said he would rely on experts within the agency. He also noted that there are plenty of issues, such as water safety, where environmental and health issues intersect.

Simmer retired from three decades of Navy service at the end of last year. He previously oversaw civilian health care insurance for the Defense Health Agency in Virginia and ran the Naval hospital in Beaufort. He also holds a master’s degree in public health.

Senate Medical Affairs Chairman Danny Verdin said Simmer would be the first medical doctor to lead DHEC in nearly four decades. The Laurens Republican said those are important skills to lead the state through the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Larry Grooms voted against Simmer's appointment, saying the agency needed a bolder leader, but added that he hopes he is proved wrong.

“We need a strong leader right now, not a strong bureaucrat," the Republican from Bonneau said.

Frequent DHEC critic Sen. Dick Harpootlian abstained, saying a “no” vote would have indicated he didn't like Simmer when his real problem is that the entire agency needs an overhaul, starting with firing the board that oversees it.

“The chances of him turning this agency around are zero,” the Columbia Democrat said.


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