South Carolina governor Henry McMaster was blasted by his acephalous health agency’s top viral doctor as having repeatedly misled the public regarding her positions on the coronavirus pandemic. Linda Bell – the state’s epidemiologist and the most visible member of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) Covid-19 response team – referred to the governor’s office as “manipulative” in its handling of the situation, according to internal agency emails obtained by Sammy Fretwell of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper.
Specifically, Bell accused McMaster of misstating her views regarding his decision to reopen restaurants for indoor dining – as well as his decision to reopen barber shops and other “close contact” businesses.
As a result of these alleged misstatements, Bell told McMaster’s office she would no longer stand beside the governor at media briefings “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,” Bell added.
“Allowing it to go unaddressed is a disservice to DHEC and the public,’’ Bell wrote in another email. “Not speaking out more from a policy perspective is one of the reasons that South Carolina is now among the states with the worst outlook.”
As coronavirus cases rose in the Palmetto State last month, Bell grew less patient with McMaster and his alleged misrepresentations of her positions.
“I’m responsible for any detrimental (e)ffect my statements or my omissions may have for public health and I need to fix that,” she wrote in one email. “I don’t want to continue to walk this fine line as more and more lives are at risk.’’
McMaster has previously praised Bell, who became the state’s chief epidemiologist in 2012.
“She gives us a lot of confidence in what we’re doing,” he told The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier back in April. “We depend on her. She has reliable information. She can speak in epidemiological terms or she can break it down to where we can understand it more easily, which is quite something.”
SCDHEC is not an agency of the governor’s cabinet, but each of the eight members of its governing board is appointed by the governor – so it might as well be. The agency has been without a director since late May, when Rick Toomey announced he was stepping down for health reasons.
Prior to Toomey’s controversial ascension to the helm of the agency in December 2018, SCDHEC went seventeen months without a director. In the aftermath of his appointment, several of the agency’s top health officials departed.
The allegations from Bell come at the worst possible time for McMaster, who is reaping the whirlwind of his indecisive response to the virus. As we reported last week, the governor has angered voters at points “up and down the Palmetto political spectrum” with his indecisiveness.
“On the ideological right, McMaster has been slammed for his initial embrace of draconian shutdown measures – efforts which appear to have only delayed the spread of the virus,” we wrote.
Meanwhile, on the left McMaster has been “castigated for failing to re-impose such measures” – and for failing to impose a “mask mandate” – as cases climbed. As a result, the governor is now experiencing “substantially reduced levels of support among Palmetto State voters,” according to pollsters we spoke earlier this month.
How will this latest scandal impact that support? We shall see …
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