COLUMBIA — The doctor South Carolinians look to for guidance on the evolving COVID-19 pandemic is a well-respected scientist applauded for her calm composure in the midst of this unprecedented crisis.
Dr. Linda Bell has been a prominent figure at Gov. Henry McMaster’s side in news conferences over the past two months, doling out the latest stats and urging residents in a calm, even tone to practice social distancing.
Outside the public eye, it’s her job to provide the analysis guiding the actions of McMaster and other officials who make up what he calls “Team South Carolina.” And when reporters’ questions involve science, he’s quick to turn over the podium to her.
“She gives us a lot of confidence in what we’re doing. We depend on her,” McMaster said. “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.”
Being in the spotlight almost daily, as the main spokesperson for South Carolina’s public health agency, is clearly not a role she relishes. Her updates, whether in public news conferences or on the phone with reporters in telebriefings, begin with her reading from prepared remarks.
But she never shies away from questions and has at times been stern, even scolding, in her answers, as she’s warned that people throughout the state should assume the virus is in their community, even if the numbers don’t show it.
After McMaster directed the agency to release patient numbers by ZIP code, which she didn’t want to do fearing it could make people complacent, DHEC also provided estimates for how many people were likely contagious and didn’t know it.
Lawmakers of both parties say they’re confident Bell is not swayed by politics.
“She is not being pushed around and not being led by anyone or anything other than numbers and data,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia.
While Bell can come across publicly as reserved and cautious, friends and colleagues say it’s just her nature to be deliberative. They describe her as a caring, quiet force committed to improving South Carolinians’ lives, both on and off the job.
And they say her calm composure is both normal for her and needed during this crisis.
“She’s a consummate professional,” said Earl Hunter, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control from 2001 to 2012. “Even when others around you are all agitated or excited or going through a range of emotions, she’s always very level-headed and able to always stick to the technical and scientific part of what we really need to do.”
How she arrived at DHEC
Bell has worked at the state’s public health agency in various roles detecting and preventing the spread of infectious diseases since 1993, becoming chief epidemiologist in 2012. She’s also director of 140 people in DHEC’s bureau of disease control and is the state’s liaison to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But public health was not what Bell envisioned for her future while growing up in El Paso, Texas, the daughter of a public school teacher and an Army veteran of both World War II and the Korean War.
It took two career changes and a romance to bring her to South Carolina, where she manages to balance a demanding job with volunteer work, while also being a wife, mother of two and a caregiver daughter.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Bell told The Post and Courier about moving to Columbia. “It was a smaller population than anywhere I’d lived before, and it’s home, and I love it.”
Bell never intended on going to medical school. She thought she wanted to be a molecular biologist. After graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, Bell researched muscle cells in a UT lab in Dallas.
But after three years of peering into a microscope, she needed a change.
“For me, that was not going to translate to anything that was going to actually help people with muscular dystrophy, I felt, in my lifetime,” Bell said. “It was valuable research and we need that kind of work, but by people cut out to do it.”
So she enrolled at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, wanting to become an infectious disease specialist — a kind of medical detective who helps determine a patient’s treatment — in Texas’ underserved communities. After completing her residency, a UT faculty member suggested she apply for a two-year program at the CDC in Atlanta. So she did.
“He said I’d get a lot more out of my infectious disease training if I understood public health first,” she said.
In Atlanta is where Bell found both her life’s work and her husband, Dr. Myron Bell, a cardiologist and South Carolina native.
She recalled traveling to West Africa to help investigate an outbreak of Lassa fever, a viral illness named for the Nigerian town where it was discovered.
“I figured out I loved public health,” Bell said. “It struck me that I had the potential to have a bigger impact doing population-based medicine instead of caring for people one-by-one.”
One year into the two-year appointment, Bell met her soon-to-be husband, and the CDC agreed to transfer her to Columbia as the federal agency’s field epidemiologist assigned to DHEC. She soon determined she could have an even greater impact in a state agency.
In Atlanta, her job “focused on very specific agents that caused hemorrhagic fever, but when I got to South Carolina, I got to do a little bit of everything — every disease, every kind of outbreak, every setting — so the breadth of the experience in the state was unexpectedly much more fulfilling than what I experienced in the CDC,” she said.