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Editorial: Cut the bureaucratic nonsense and focus on protecting SC from COVID-19

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Charleston Area COVID-19 Warning Levels

The Medical University of South Carolina developed this local warning system to give Charleston area residents a sense of COVID-19's threat level, but MUSC soon took it down because of state objections. Provided

It seemed like a great idea: Launch a new public warning system for the Charleston area so residents can understand the current threat level of COVID-19 and adjust their plans accordingly.

And then state bureaucrats stepped in and hit the brakes.

That’s why the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 Warning Level alert ended quietly Sunday afternoon, only three days after its launch, with a brief statement saying, “Along with state and local public safety agencies, MUSC will explore the possibility of developing a statewide COVID-19 notification system.”

Never mind that more than four months into the pandemic, neither the state’s Department of Environmental Control nor its Emergency Management Division has come up with such an alert system, even as COVID-19 has infected more than 60,000 South Carolinians and killed almost 1,000 of them.

And never mind that our situation is growing more dire. When MUSC unveiled the four-color alert system last week, it placed the Charleston region in Code Orange, meaning there’s a high level of transmission, our testing and contact tracing capacities are under stress, and local hospitals are seeing a substantial number of COVID-19 patients. Orange is one step away from Code Red, where significant outbreaks are worsening and the region’s testing abilities and hospital beds are at or beyond capacity.

MUSC President Dr. David Cole said last week the Charleston region could hit red by the end of this month if the trends don’t change. They haven’t so far.

And never mind that the current threat varies in different parts of the state. In the pandemic’s early days, the numbers across the Charleston region were relatively low. Now we’re the hot spot. Charleston has had more positive cases by far than any other South Carolina county during much of the past week.

And never mind that the only real positive action any of us can take to fight the pandemic is to act responsibly by staying at home as much as we can; wearing a mask whenever we venture out in public, especially somewhere indoors; washing our hands and covering our coughs; and remaining at home if we don’t feel well. The alert system was designed to give residents who weren’t being diligent about doing all that a little push to double-down as the danger increases.

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None of that apparently was as important as some line that might have been crossed with those at the S.C. Emergency Management Division. “The FCC takes unauthorized emergency alerts very seriously, it could result in fines,” SCEMD spokesman Derrec Becker told WCIV-TV Monday.

Maybe it’s worth taking that chance.

“During a public health crisis, it is MUSC’s responsibility to educate, inform and share important information as part of our statewide mission. We made the governor’s office aware of our local, Charleston-based effort,” MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said. “We did not know that this new public awareness COVID-19 notification system, specific to the Charleston area and related to our data intelligence project, would be concerning to SCEMD.”

It’s unclear when, or if, a new statewide system might be unveiled and whether it would break down the threat within the state by region. We urge state and local officials to look beyond their bureaucratic turf to ensure they’re doing all they can to get the word out — and get it out in a way that will get through all the noise.

It is clear that if a new alert system isn’t unveiled soon, it might be too late. Hospitals across the Charleston region already are close to being overwhelmed, particularly with shortages of healthy medical staff and testing capabilities. Beds and protective equipment are also concerns.

The threat is real, and too many still are ignoring it and not taking the individual steps that could lessen the spread. In Gov. Henry McMaster’s own words, too many of us still are “being stupid.”

Since we all must play a critical role in curbing the reach of COVID-19, we can’t hear that message often enough.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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