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Dispute between SC agencies leads to cancellation of MUSC coronavirus warning system

Virus Outbreak South Carolina (copy)

MUSC health care providers wear protective suiting as they get ready to see patients at the hospital's drive-thru tent for patients who are being tested for COVID-19 at Citadel Mall. File/Mic Smith/AP

A spat between two South Carolina public agencies led to the cancellation of a warning system for COVID-19 in the tri-county area after less than three days.

As the number of coronavirus cases in the Charleston area hit alarming levels, the Medical University of South Carolina held a press conference last week with members of the media and regional leaders. There, MUSC announced a notification system that would assess the risk levels for COVID-19 in the Charleston area.

By Sunday, the effort was abruptly canceled.

An official with the S.C. Emergency Management Division said the hospital's alerts impinged on the statewide warning system already in place — the one that alerts residents of an incoming hurricane and issues AMBER Alerts.

MUSC and the emergency agency say it's back to the drawing board working on a system that would notify the public of the COVID-19 threat level across the state. 

The system had four warning levels ranging between green and red. 

"Our community is now in a Code Orange status — one step away from Code Red," Dr. David Cole, president of MUSC Health, said during the press conference Thursday.

Code Red would be the most intense condition.

Cole said during the press conference he expected Charleston to reach Code Red status by late July or early August. 

"That would mean significant outbreaks are present and worsening," he said. "It means if Charleston won't choose safety and adhere to these guidelines now, we will erase the gains we made in April and May and face the reality of making undesirable, debilitating and difficult decisions in the very near future."

The alerts system used information from MUSC's Epidemiology Intelligence Project, a landing page launched weeks ago that already assigns a green, yellow or red status to a range of metrics, including hospital capacity and the growth rate in new cases. The alerts would have been shared through the news media. 

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But the use of the "code" terminology seemed to create friction, as it comes close to the language used in the official warning system, which is named CodeRED.

"Had we known MUSC was working on such a project, we would have been very eager to partner with them to make sure everything was coordinated," Derrec Becker, a spokesman for EMD, said. 

MUSC said it notified Gov. Henry McMaster's office of its plans.

“During a public health crisis, it is MUSC’s responsibility to educate, inform and share important information as part of our statewide mission," spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said in a statement. "We remain committed to doing all we can to advise, support and serve our local community in the battle against COVID-19."

Becker said MUSC should have contacted state and local emergency planners. Becker said MUSC's actions are not like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, but "it's yelling fire when there's an actual fire, instead of pulling the alarm."

"We cannot let anything get in the way, muddle or confuse actual emergency alerts," Becker said. "The system is sacred." 

MUSC is not the first university to publish a warning system with similar language and color-coded alerts. On July 1, the Harvard Public Health Institute introduced a tool with similar elements. South Carolina's seven-day average of COVID-19 cases is the fourth-highest in the country. 

"Filtering out what matters from a rising sea of misinformation has become a daunting task," the Harvard Public Health Institute's announcement stated. The Harvard tool gives Charleston County and South Carolina a red "tipping point" assessment, indicating "stay-at-home orders necessary."

The state emergency office also raised the point that Federal Communications Commission regulations prohibit anyone from transmitting the government's warning signals. Though the academic health center made no mention of the state's system when it released its own, Becker said he believed the MUSC warning came close enough. 

In a recent instance, the FCC levied a $272,000 fine against CBS because of a tornado warning sound effect included in a 2018 episode of the comedy "Young Sheldon." 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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