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SC health officials defend limited COVID-19 data release

April 1, 2020 GMT
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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster listens as State Epidemiologist Linda Bell gives an update on the state’s response to the coronavirus at the South Carolina Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia, S.C., Thursday, March 26, 2020. McMaster said he is not ready to issue a stay at home order for the entire state because residents are following instructions on social distancing. (AP Photo /Jeffrey Collins)
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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster listens as State Epidemiologist Linda Bell gives an update on the state’s response to the coronavirus at the South Carolina Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia, S.C., Thursday, March 26, 2020. McMaster said he is not ready to issue a stay at home order for the entire state because residents are following instructions on social distancing. (AP Photo /Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As businesses considered nonessential close across South Carolina to fight the coronavirus, state health officials are coming under increased scrutiny over information it isn’t gathering or releasing about the spread of the virus.

For a brief time last week, the Department of Health and Environmental Control released the number of COVID-19 cases in each ZIP code. But less than a day later, officials replaced it with a list that included only ZIP codes where there had been at least one case.

State health officials also are not tracking how many health care workers are infected, and have been reluctant to share the addresses of known cases with emergency dispatchers. They appeared to backing off the latter policy, however. Local authorities have said they need that information to better protect first responders and conserve protective gear, which is in short supply.

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Health officials have reasons for all of their decisions. But eventually it all comes back to their desire to get the public to understand that for every diagnosed COVID-19 case, a shortage of tests means there are a lot of people who probably have the virus but have not been diagnosed, meaning people need to act like anyone they encounter is infected and protect themselves.

“There are unrecognized cases everywhere. And therefore, they have to practice those measures regardless of what they know about a specific case at a particular point in time,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell.

South Carolina reported 210 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the largest daily increase since the outbreak started. Four additional deaths were reported. All together, South Carolina had nearly 1,300 COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths. Forty-three of the state’s 46 counties have had at least one case.

Gov. Henry McMaster set a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline for nonessential businesses to close. His executive order, issued on Tuesday, lists a broad range of businesses considered nonessential, among them tattoo parlors, hair salons, spas, nightclubs, theaters and museums.

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McMaster’s approach — closing things in phases instead of issuing a blanket “stay at home” order — has been criticized, but the governor said he was trying to balance protecting public health and saving the economy.

The state health department said it was performing a similar balancing act as it tried to keep residents informed without sparking panic.

Critics of that approach said it fails to provide people with the whole picture. Richland County has nearly 150 COVID-19 cases and the health department’s website lists infected patients in 25 of the county’s 40 ZIP codes. But there is no way to tell if there is one person infected or a cluster of dozens.

“It becomes harmful information, and it creates a false sense of security,” Bell said.

On Tuesday, Bell noted that health officials had come up with a secure database to provide emergency dispatchers with “information that they need to make decisions about response.” She did not elaborate.

The state health department also isn’t tracking the number of health care workers infected across the state. Individual hospitals are releasing the information in a piecemeal way.

The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston announced this week that 38 employees had COVID-14, but included no breakdown of the jobs they perform.

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Associated Press reporter Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.