Dr. Linda Bell has the daunting challenge of spearheading South Carolina’s battle against COVID-19. As the Palmetto State’s epidemiologist with the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), Bell has been the face and the voice of the agency which is charged with promoting and protecting the health of the public and the environment in South Carolina.
Bell spoke to Claflin University students during a virtual Town Hall meeting on Zoom hosted by the University and the Student Government Association (SGA) on Monday, August 30. Her data-driven discussion included a look back at how the country was seemingly months away from possibly finding its way out of the pandemic. However, the confluence of July 4th and other summertime holidays, failure to maintain previous protection and immunization levels, and the emergence of a new variant contributed to a steep increase in positive COVID-19 test results.
“We were seeing double-digit cases or fewer than 100 confirmed cases in a single day during the middle of June. Now we have more than 5,000 to 6,000 cases in a single day,” Bell said. “Then, the worst thing that happened was the arrival of a new strain – the Delta variant — which is highly transmittable from person to person. All of this created a perfect storm and the situation got completely out of hand.”
Bell pointed out that the Data Tracker map developed by the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies if states have high, substantial, moderate, or low rates of COVID-19 transmissions. It confirms that the United States is “red hot” with COVID-19 cases.
Despite the dramatic surge in infections, Bell remains optimistic.
“We have some tools and resources available to us that can prevent what is causing these illnesses and deaths,” Bell said. “The fact is that so many people are not taking advantage of them. I am spending the bulk of my professional time on this one thing. But I understand that for others, accurate information may not be available. I want to provide accurate and correct data that may help them make informed choices.”
Research by the CDC reported that African Americans have disproportionately higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. Bell supported those findings and added that many African Americans have elevated risks due to underlying medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, obesity, and other health problems.
“African Americans with any of these conditions are at least three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital. If they have COVID, they can develop complications and are more likely to die,” Bell said. “If you have three of these conditions, you are five times more likely to be admitted to the hospital to take care of your COVID-19 infection than people without these conditions.”
Bell said that she hears many questions about the vaccines, but she encourages people to ask instead about the disease itself.
“The benefits of the vaccines significantly outweigh the risk of the disease,” Bell said.
Other startling facts in the CDC’s report were that COVID-19 deaths are increasing among African Americans in the 15-24 and 45-49 age groups. The number of African American deaths due to COVID is disproportionate to the percentage of the African American population in South Carolina, which is 27 percent.
Bell confirmed that the vaccines were properly tested and that they do not have any properties that enable anyone to track a person’s movements or locations. She also dismissed the notion that the vaccines cause infertility, takes too much time, or are unnecessary to prevent COVID-19 infection.
“I encourage you not to wait and to take the vaccine,” Bell said. “Nearly 174 million people have been vaccinated but two-thirds of the population have not been vaccinated and are still at risk. The vaccines are safe, and they have gone through all the clinical trials by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The side effects are mild – the vaccination may cause some pain and swelling due to the needle. But it does not infect you with the disease.
Bell concluded her message to the students by urging them to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others.
“Protect yourself, so you can protect the people around you,” she said. “Make sure you are able to realize the bright future that lies ahead of you.”