By Mindy Lucas
In the fight against the spread of COVID-19, this past week produced the first glimmer of hope as not one but three major pharmaceutical companies came forward with news of successful vaccines.
“We consider this very encouraging news,” said South Carolina’s epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell in a statewide phone conference held with members of the media on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
Dr. Bell and other health officials with the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) outlined the process by which a vaccine would be rolled out in South Carolina – first to health care providers and others who most often come in to contact with the virus or those infected, then to the general public.
And while Pfizer announced this past week that it has applied for emergency use authorization – Moderna expects to apply soon as well – health officials also cautioned that doesn’t mean the vaccine will be available this week or next.
In fact, the approval process could take several weeks after applications for emergency use are sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and several months before it is available to the general public, Bell said.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to continue with such protective measures as wearing masks and avoiding gatherings, Bell and other health officials have said.
“Certainly for the immediate future for the upcoming holidays, all the recommendations that we have for prevention and protection must remain in place,” Bell said.
While news of the availability of a vaccine have encouraged those on the front lines, many still are bracing for a surge in cases with the onset of colder weather and the flu season, which could further complicate matters.
In many parts of the country, the numbers of positive cases and hospitals overrun with COVID patients have exploded in recent weeks causing new lockdowns and restrictions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend against traveling or gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday.
On Friday, Nov. 20, CDC officials said they were alarmed to see 1 million new cases reported across the United States within the past week. Already in the United States, 250,000 people have died from the virus.
In Beaufort County where incidence rates have continued to remain high, news of a vaccine was particularly welcomed, though the number of patients who have had to be hospitalized in Beaufort has been relatively low, Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kurt Gambla said.
In terms of hospitalizations, the hospital has seen only single digits and among those the hospital has tested, the numbers of positive tests for the virus have been running around 11 percent, he said.
“We’d like to think the numbers very locally have remained low because we’ve been good, and I think that is true, but there’s also some luck involved with that,” Gambla said.
Like the CDC, Gambla had recommended that families forego traveling or interacting with others outside the main household for Thanksgiving, and until a vaccine does become available, it is important for Beaufort residents to continue taking protective measures, he said.
“Honestly, that is all we have right now,” he said.
What’s worrisome is that Beaufort could still see an uptick in numbers this winter, he said.
“It would be naive to think we’re going stay at these low numbers through the whole winter. We probably are going to see a surge, so our goal is … if we do have a surge to mitigate that as much as we can,” he said.
The hospital does have a surge plan in place, which it will implement if the numbers do begin to rise, he said.
Moreover, even with a vaccine on the horizon, a large portion of the population – roughly 90 percent – would need to be immunized before we are able to relax prevention measures, according to the state’s epidemiologist.
“The faster that we can get the population covered, the more quickly we can move to what we’re all looking forward to as more normalized activities,” said Dr. Bell.
In the meantime, Dr. Gambla is concerned that people will hear the news that a vaccine is coming and let their guard down, or abandon precautions altogether once it arrives here in Beaufort.
“The vaccine is another tool that we layer on, until we’re immune,” he said, adding that all of these measures work together in helping to overcome the virus.
“We really want to beat this thing and have a sense of control over this thing,” he said. “This is another tool we have to help with this.”
FAQS ABOUT THE VACCINE
Even with the recent news that a vaccine may soon be underway, much is still unknown given how fluid the situation is.
However, the following are just a few questions state and local health officials fielded recently.
Where will I be able to get the vaccine?
In much the same way you get your flu shot, you will more than likely be able to obtain the COVID vaccination from your local health provider.
The federal government is also working with large grocery store chains for distribution, and about 175 organizations in South Carolina have already applied to become approved vaccine providers, said DHEC officials. However, those are still in various stages of approval.
Here in Beaufort, Beaufort Memorial expects to be a vaccination site as well, Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kurt Gambla said.
How much will it cost?
The federal government is committed to making the vaccine available at no charge to consumers, said DHEC’s Dr. Linda Bell. Insurance providers will also cover administration and doctor’s office fees, so there will be no cost for the vaccine or for receiving the vaccine, she said.
Will my children be required to get the COVID vaccine in order to enter school next year?
Requiring the vaccine to enter schools is not under consideration at this time, DHEC officials said.
However, private workplaces such as a doctor’s office or other facilities, may require workers to obtain the vaccination.
I’ve heard there are several vaccines. Which one will I get?
It depends on a number of factors such as which manufacturer will be ready first, can effectively ship the vaccine to providers and which vaccination may be recommended for certain populations, DHEC officials noted.
The agency said it will work with federal guidelines in selecting which is best for certain populations. AstraZeneca and Oxford University, for example, announced this past week that their COVID-19 vaccine produced a strong immune response in older adults.
BEAUFORT COUNTY BY THE NUMBERS
234.7 per 100,000 people – Incidence Rate (More than 200 is considered high)
6,891 – Total number of cases
311 – Hospitalizations
94 – Deaths
*Source: S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control as of Nov. 22, 2020