DHEC officials: ‘Don’t wait – vaccinate’

in Coronavirus/Health/News by

All South Carolina residents 16 and older now eligible for COVID vaccine

By Mindy Lucas

Jamie Daniel, who received her second COVID shot on Saturday, was excited because of what it would soon mean.

In just two weeks the Beaufort resident will be considered fully vaccinated and can finally begin enjoying some of the things she has missed doing over the last year – things like going to the movies, taking a vacation or just going to a restaurant.

“That’s the one thing I haven’t done in a year – sitting down in a restaurant. I just get it to go and take it home,” she said.

Like Daniel, who became eligible when Phase 1B opened, all South Carolinians age 16 and older can now begin getting vaccinated. The state opened the process to everyone in that group on Wednesday, March 31.

It’s a major milestone, health officials noted, given the fact that just a year ago a vaccine didn’t even exist. Now there are three.

“This truly is a monumental feat,” said Nick Davidson, senior deputy with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) Public Health Division. “… To be able to quickly develop and implement, and then roll out an unprecedented vaccination program for our lifetime.”

Vaccines first became available in mid-November, with some of the first Beaufort residents – front line health care workers – getting their shots at Beaufort Memorial Hospital in December just before the holidays.

But many more had to wait, and wait, as vaccine availability slowed to a crawl.

In January, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster expressed frustration with the rollout saying he was determined to “eliminate bottlenecks” with the state’s response, though outside of issuing executive orders did not say what specifically he would do to speed up the process.

In the meantime, many residents began traveling to neighboring states where the vaccine seemed to be more readily available to their demographic.

Finally, in March, the logjam seemed to break as DHEC moved to Phase 1B. That group included ages 55 and up, those with high risk medical conditions, teachers and anyone who had to do their job in-person or perform a job that put them in frequent close contact with others – like Jamie Daniel.

At first, Daniel couldn’t find an appointment in Beaufort. So when she found one at a CVS in Denmark, about 90 miles north of Beaufort, she jumped at the chance to go ahead and start the vaccination process.

She went back to that CVS on Saturday with her mother and father. Her father already had his vaccination, she said, but her mother was getting her second shot.

“We worked it where we both could go at the same time,” she said.

Over the past three and half months, more than 2 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the Palmetto State, DHEC health officials said in a statewide teleconference call held with members of the media on Wednesday, March 31.

Still, many more need to get vaccinated, they said, and not just in South Carolina, but across the country in order to reach herd immunity and protect everyone.

As of Monday, April 5, only 19 percent of South Carolinians had been fully vaccinated while 33 percent had received their first dose, according to data provided by DHEC.

However, in terms of the percentage of doses given per population, when compared to other states, South Carolina is “at or slightly above where we need to be,” Davidson said on Wednesday’s call.

“I’m really quite pleased with where we are,” he said.

While the department has come under fire at times for the rollout of the state’s vaccination program, DHEC officials said its number one message now is, “Don’t Wait – Vaccinate.”

The agency has plans to begin canvassing the state via various forms of communications – billboards, social media and traditional advertising – to get that message across. They plan to target those who may be on the fence and younger populations in particular, they said.

While young adults may be at lower risk for developing complications or becoming or severely ill from the virus, they are at a higher risk for carrying and spreading the virus due to their activities and vaccination rates.

Overall though, health officials expect the state’s numbers of those vaccinated to increase as additional supplies of the vaccine become available.

“We have significant additional vaccine coming into the state over the next week,” Davidson said. “This will allow us to focus more and more on large scale, community-centric vaccine clinics both in our urban and rural areas.”

Officials expect the introduction of the new Janssen single-dose vaccine by Johnson and Johnson to also aid in increasing the rate of those vaccinated.

In the meantime, officials are cautioning against the idea that everything is “back to normal,” just because the vaccine is here and more people are getting vaccinated.

“That phrase right there is concerning,” Davidson said, especially given that spring break and the likelihood of increased travel is right around the corner.

“We need to be very careful to think that we’re in some phase of normal,” he said.

Residents need to keep their guard up by continuing to wear masks, practicing social distancing and good hygiene and staying away from large gatherings, he said. And, “many, many more” people need to get vaccinated, he added.

Those who tried making an appointment last week may have experienced difficulty in finding an available slot, when eligibility for everyone 16 and older first opened. The department’s call volume and Internet traffic was high, on Wednesday, March 31, DHEC officials said, adding that it was “too early” to tell yet if there were any true problems in getting through for an appointment.

One of the area’s major vaccination providers, Beaufort Memorial Hospital has been busy, though the demand for first doses since Wednesday had not been as high as expected, hospital spokesperson Courtney McDermott said.

The hospital, she said, continues to have daily availability for appointments and is actively working to encourage the community to register.

As of Monday, April 5, the hospital had given 19,461 first doses and 13,106 second doses, she said.

For Jamie Daniel, getting the vaccine was important, not just for protecting herself but for protecting other members of her family, she said.

“I’m around a lot of older family members, parents and grandparents, and they have underlying health conditions,” she said.

She didn’t want to get the virus and be the one to give it to them, she added. “It’s just important to protect yourself and to protect everyone else.”

Above: On Saturday, April 3, Jamie Daniel, of Beaufort, drove to Denmark, where she got her second dose of the COVID vaccination. All South Carolinians age 16 and older are now eligible for the vaccine. Photo by Jim Daniel.

 

Mindy Lucas is the Beaufort reporter for The Island News and is a staff writer for Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at mindy.islandnews@gmail.com.