Pace of vaccine rollout dismays South Carolina lawmakers
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers are questioning the pace of the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, even as health officials say they’re vaccinating people faster than the rest of the country.
The state has administered just 35,158 of the 112,125 doses it had received by Wednesday, or about 31%, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. That’s still higher than the national average of 19% and that of other Southeastern states, the agency said in a news release.
Those doses are going to front-line health care workers and people living and working in long-term care facilities in the state’s initial phase.
“It will be an unknown amount of time before everyone who would like to be vaccinated can receive vaccine,” said Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist, in a statement. “We are calling on all South Carolinians to continue to be patient and understand that an endeavor like this will take many weeks to complete the initial phases and months to achieve our ultimate goal of coverage for the population.”
For state legislators already frustrated with the health agency’s pandemic response, the numbers are yet another sign that the health department is underperforming.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said there will likely be more extensive oversight of the agency in the coming year: “The public is asking for more leadership and more communication, whether that be from the governor’s office or DHEC, just to let us know what’s going on. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request.”
The department has lacked a permanent director since the start of the summer. During that time, the agency has been tasked with spearheading the vaccine rollout on top of its other pandemic duties, including testing. The sprawling, nearly 4,000-employee agency also oversees everything from hospitals and public health to water quality, dams and landfills.
Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat from Charleston, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he had learned from the department that the slow pace could be attributed to a number of factors. Some front-line health care workers are declining to be vaccinated, while others are on vacation, Kimpson said. He added that the agency indicates there is also a lag in reporting the administered vaccine numbers.
“The numbers are terribly disturbing,” Kimpson said.
Rep. Neal Collins, a Republican from Pickens, pointed out that given the state’s current rate, it would take years for the entire population of 5 million to be vaccinated.
Collins, who’s worked to help streamline testing in South Carolina, says the slowdowns he witnessed in the testing process – from collecting samples to data reporting – could also be happening with vaccine distribution: “There are all kinds of different chokepoints there, and I imagine the same is occurring with the vaccines.”
Hospitals say they’re moving rapidly to vaccinate staff members as the unchecked spread of coronavirus has created staffing issues for systems already near or at capacity. Prisma Health, the state’s largest health system, had already vaccinated more than 6,000 employees as of Wednesday.
“We are dosing it as fast as we can get it,” said Heather Woolwine, a spokeswoman for the Medical University of South Carolina.
Hospitals are also bracing for the grim aftereffects of holiday gatherings as South Carolina’s coronavirus numbers have skyrocketed since Thanksgiving weekend. The health department reported 2,323 confirmed cases and 42 additional deaths Wednesday. The state has seen a total of 280,024 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths since the start of the outbreak.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.
Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.