DHEC doctor stresses that S.C. residents continue social distancing, wearing masks as restrictions ease

FULL INTERVIEW: State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell discusses COVID-19 with WMBF News

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Now that some restrictions have been lessened in South Carolina, one of the faces of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic said now is not the time to let up on social distancing and to keep wearing a mask in public.

Dr. Linda Bell with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said there is still significant transmission happening in communities and the state hasn’t seen a consistent 14-day decrease of the virus.

As far as making testing more available, Bell said DHEC is working with healthcare agencies to expand testing to people in the community who are ill, and not just people in the hospital, as was the case earlier in the pandemic. This includes getting into rural communities and places that didn’t have equal access as more populated areas.

Bell is still cautioning from using emergency departments if immediate care is not needed. She expects positive numbers to go up in S.C. because they’re going to be doing a better job at finding people who are sick.

Additionally, once those numbers come in, DHEC will work to find out if it’s a presence that was already there or increased new activity. Then, she said, they’ll interpret a new curve with the new knowledge of cases.

“This is a reminder that we’re still seeing high levels of disease activity in our communities. We are encouraged by the potential flattening of the curve, but it is still critical that people don’t misunderstand in any way the statements about reopening. This is a relaxation of some restrictions and it’s critical that people continue to observe all the recommendations that have been made," Bell said.

At Monday’s news conference with Gov. Henry McMaster, Bell said DHEC’s public lab no longer has a delay in testing, and that getting the reagents has improved, along with the testing capabilities.

Regarding the need to improve testing and care to rural and minority communities, Bell said it’s something DHEC is prioritizing. First, however, the community’s healthcare workers will need personal protective equipment to test and treat sick patients. Right now, she said that’s lacking.

As far as minority communities, Bell thinks the coronavirus will improve healthcare for minorities and the overall system.

“Well one thing that I hope we’ve learned from this is the importance of access to care for an entire population because when any pockets of the population are disproportionately or adversely affected by a public health threat it doesn’t just affect that part of the population particularly with an infectious disease, it can potentially affect all of the population," Bell said. “And so a very important lesson to learn is that how adequate access to care at all times is important, whether we’re in a crisis or whether we’re addressing chronic problems.”

Bell said some of the reasons there are health disparities in African-Americans is because they tend to suffer more from the consequences of heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and obesity. She stressed that if those chronic health issues were better addressed then there would not be “pockets of the population who are more susceptible to additional disease threats.”

Her hope is that if anything good comes out of the pandemic, it would be an improvement in care for everyone.

The full interview with Dr. Bell can be viewed above.

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