SC official regrets not voicing concerns with virus response

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COLUMBIA — The doctor serving as South Carolina's state epidemiologist said she regrets not speaking out publicly about her concerns as the state reopened close-contact businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Linda Bell said in June emails that Gov. Henry McMaster's staff misled the public to believe she supported the Republican governor's May decision to allow restaurants to resume dine-in service and barbershops and other businesses to reopen, The State reported Saturday.

Bell has served as the public face of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's effort to stem COVID-19. In an email to two agency colleagues June 21, Bell said she had tried to avoid any sign of public disagreement with McMaster during news conferences on the virus response, and that the governor's staff had misleadingly framed her silence as support.

"The governor's staff are also somewhat manipulative in the meetings that I've been allowed to attend prior to the press briefings,'' Bell's email said. "I will not 'stand next to the governor' anymore without speaking to what the science tells us is the right thing to do, particularly as his staff intend to portray that as my complicity with his position.''

As of Saturday, South Carolina had confirmed more than 98,000 coronavirus infections statewide and linked the virus to at least 1,931 deaths.

Bell's emails, which the newspaper obtained under South Carolina's open records law, show signs of tension between state health officials focused on stopping the spread of the virus and the governor's office that has tried to make room for economic recovery following a spring shutdown.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Saturday the governor appreciates Bell's advice even as he considers a range of factors.

"Dr. Bell's perspective and expertise has been — and continues to be — an important component of this process,'' Symmes told The State by email. "But we have to remember that the governor's scope of responsibilities and considerations is vastly different from that of our public health experts, who rightly have a more narrow focus.''

Bell stood at McMaster's side May 11 when South Carolina restaurants reopened their dining rooms with restrictions and the governor announced barbershops, gyms and public pools would soon follow.

"We can provide the guidance for them to do that as safely as possible," Bell said at the time, adding that it wasn't her agency's job to tell businesses when they can open or tell people what they can or cannot do.

About a week later, The State reported, Symmes was asked if Bell supported the governor's reopening decision and he replied: "The fact that she was standing next to him would suggest they were not in opposition."

The newspaper said Bell declined to comment further on her emails when reached Saturday.

The epidemiologist owned up to not speaking out more forcefully in her June 21 email, writing: "I'm responsible for any detrimental (e)ffect my statements or my omissions may have for public health and I need to fix that.''

In a later email June 25, she advocated for "stronger statements from DHEC" to help curb infection rates in South Carolina.

Bell wrote: "I don't want to continue to walk this fine line as more and more lives are at risk.''