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Beaufort County residents struggle to land vaccine appointments

12 mins read

South Carolina makes national news for first cases of variant

By Mindy Lucas

THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED:  Beginning Monday, Feb. 8, any South Carolina resident age 65 or older, regardless of health status or preexisting conditions, can begin scheduling an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

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Beaufort County resident Estelle Ford-Williamson began trying to get an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it became available to ages 70 and older.

“I have grandchildren who I want to be more comfortable around,” said Ford-Williamson, who began entering her information into the Vaccine Administration Management System, or VAMS, in hopes of getting an appointment locally.

But after running into the same technical error that kept kicking her off the online system, she decided to take a break.

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Friends of hers that had gotten through and made appointments with Beaufort Memorial Hospital, had their appointments canceled.

On Friday, Jan. 15, the hospital announced their expected shipments of more than 2,000 doses would not be coming after they were notified by the state their orders could not be filled.

As a result, the hospital was forced to cancel more than 6,000 scheduled appointments, hospital officials said, and additional requests had to go unscheduled.

Undeterred, Ford-Williamson got back on her computer to try again – this time on Publix’s vaccination site.

The Florida-based grocery chain recently announced, it would begin offering the vaccination to those ages 70 and older in South Carolina as well as other states and one of Ford-Williamson’s Facebook friends in Georgia had gotten through.

However, once again her efforts came up empty as the Publix site wouldn’t produce an appointment. Finally, after calling the Medical University of South Carolina, Ford-Williamson got through.

She and her husband are now going to drive 75 miles to Charleston – something they don’t mind doing if it gets them inoculated, she said – later this week.

It may all seem like a lot of hassle that perhaps is only happening to one person but unfortunately Ford-Williamson is hardly alone in her experience.

After taking to Facebook to detail her problems getting an appointment, the local writer, a published author with friends and followers across the country, heard similar stories.

“People from all over the country were saying they were having trouble too,” she said.

To make matters worse, area health administrators seem to be left out in the cold as well.

As of press time on Tuesday, Feb. 2, Beaufort Memorial Hospital had not received word from DHEC on whether its orders for the week would be filled, though the hospital usually receives allocation notices mid-week or later, said the hospital’s Director of Marketing and Communications Courtney McDermott.

As of Tuesday, the hospital was still holding off on making any new appointments, thought it has been administering second dose vaccinations which were held back for those individuals, she said.

In the meantime, it has set up a waitlist on its website for those age 70 and older who wish to be notified when vaccine does become available.

New home for vaccination clinic

When vaccine supplies do become available again, hospital officials say they will be ready with a new, larger home for its vaccination clinic.

The hospital announced on Tuesday that the former Keyserling Cancer Center, on Ribaut Road, in Port Royal, will now serve as the new home to the Beaufort Memorial Vaccine Clinic.

The hospital’s current vaccination clinic, housed in the Beaufort Medical Plaza, is about one-third the size needed to handle appointment volume, hospital officials said on Tuesday.

“We have quickly outgrown our current space providing vaccinations to our employees, first responders and now the community in general,” said the hospital’s President and CEO Russell Baxley. “The new location will provide much more space for staff to work safely and efficiently, and for patients to be vaccinated and observed.”

The 25,000-square-foot medical pavilion also houses Beaufort Memorial’s Express Care & Occupational Health clinic.

Teachers, older residents pushing for prioritization

While S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is pushing for all South Carolina schools to re-open with five day a week, in-person education, many teachers and advocacy groups, say they want to be given priority for vaccinations.

Teachers are currently included in Phase 1b of the state’s rollout plan, ahead of other populations and those in the general public, which is not likely to start until spring, state health officials have said.

However, many say that’s not good enough if they are return to in-person instruction on an all-the-time basis.

Both the Palmetto State Teachers Association and the South Carolina Education Association recently asked the governor and state health officials to consider moving teachers ahead or to the top of Phase 1b.

When asked why teachers were not included in 1a along with other first responders, Dr. Michael Kacka, DHEC physician and Chief Medical Officer for COVID-19 said in a statewide media call on Monday, that they were following recommendations provided by the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

“Teachers are obviously very important frontline workers who may be at risk of exposure, and we do take that under consideration,” he said. “The problem is, we still have several weeks of Phase 1a to go because of the limited supply of vaccine.”

The agency was unable to provide any specifics as to when that might happen or when Phase 1b would actually begin.

“We’re still hoping for early spring for Phase 1b to be in effect,” he said. “Unfortunately, I cannot provide a specific timeline for Phase 1b, but the general idea of who we might want to get vaccinated is available now.”

Currently Phase 1b includes firefighters, law enforcement officers, corrections officers, food and agriculture workers, USPS workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers and those in the educational sector including teachers, support staff and daycare workers, according to DHEC’s website.

The agency estimates that population to include 573,501 people.

The AARP of South Carolina also came out to challenge DHEC’s rollout plan, on Monday, saying residents age 50 and older should be given priority since older Americans are at greater risk for death and complications from the virus.

Gov. McMaster and DHEC announced on Wednesday, Feb. 3, that beginning Monday, Feb. 8, any South Carolina resident age 65 or older, regardless of health status or preexisting conditions, can begin scheduling an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Asked on Monday whether he supported prioritizing the vaccination of teachers, McMaster said he believed seniors should receive first preference, according to The (Columbia) State newspaper.

Both the governor and DHEC have come under fire in recent months for the state’s slow response and rollout of its vaccination program. McMaster has since said he supports the idea of splitting up the agency, in an effort to make it more responsive to crisis situations such as the pandemic.

On Monday’s media call, DHEC was asked what cues or lessons it has taken from states that have more successful rollouts.

“It’s fair to say we’re always looking to other states for best practices,” Dr. Kacka said.

Variants found in South Carolina

South Carolina also made national news last week when it became the first state in the country to detect two cases of the COVID-19 variant from South Africa, or B.1.351 variant.

Over the weekend, DHEC announced another variant had been found in South Carolina – this one from the United Kingdom, or B.1.1.7 variant – in an adult in the Lowcountry.

The U.K. variant has been identified in 32 states and 72 countries, according to various news reports. Both variants are believed to spread easier and quicker and are less responsive to current vaccines, health officials have said.

“The arrival of the second variant in our state should be a wake up call to South Carolinians that the fight against COVID-19 is unfortunately far from over,” Dr. Kacka said.

 

For More Information

Beaufort Memorial Hospital is not accepting new appointments at the moment but will do so as vaccines become available. If you are 70 or older and wish to have your name added to the waitlist, visit www.beaufortmemorial.org/vaccine.

To find a location currently accepting appointments go to scdhec.gov/vaxlocator 

Residents age 70 and older without a computer or access to the internet, can also try DHEC’s Care Line at 1-855-472-3432 for assistance in locating contact information for scheduling an appointment. The Care Line cannot schedule an appointment for you, but can help provide the phone numbers of locations offering vaccine appointments.

Above: The Beaufort-based Beaufort Memorial Vaccine Clinic has re-opened at the Port Royal Medical Pavilion, located at 1680 Ribaut Road in Port Royal. Photo courtesy of Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

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