SC to prioritize elderly, food workers for COVID-19 vaccine
WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Prisoners and poultry plant workers will follow soon after frontline healthcare employees in South Carolina’s COVID-19 vaccine plan, Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday.
At the outset of the first phase of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, the state will focus on healthcare employees including physicians, medical students, speech pathologists and residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, McMaster told reporters Wednesday.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control said this week that it was expecting about 200,000 to 300,000 initial doses of the vaccine from the federal government by the end of the year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will then follow up with the second doses required for the vaccine, which must be administered a few weeks later, said Stephen White, the state’s immunization director.
Limited availability of the vaccine early on means states have had to plot out which groups will first receive the vaccine based on their likelihood of contracting and dying from the virus, though health officials say they are confident they will have enough supplies for all South Carolinians who want to receive the vaccine next year.
McMaster said the second half of the state’s first phase will include people living in settings such as prisons, jails and homeless shelters, as well as processing plant and other food production workers, and utilities employees. The governor said others included will be those aged 75 and older and people with two or more underlying health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
Among people to be prioritized in the state’s second phase are pharmacists, K-12 school employees, childcare workers and food delivery workers.
The vaccine plan comes as virus cases are again rising sharply in South Carolina, straining hospitals and healthcare workers as hospitalizations are returning to levels not seen since the state’s last spike during the summer.
Standing alongside McMaster on Wednesday, top hospital officials pleaded with residents to avoid large gatherings this holiday season. They noted that the state is already seeing the impact from Thanksgiving celebrations.
While reported deaths due to the virus are not yet rising at the same rate as cases, that’s likely due to a lag effect, said David Cole, president of the Medical University of South Carolina. “I don’t want to be morbid but: stay tuned.”
Officials underscored that getting the vaccine does not eliminate need to practice social distancing, mask wearing and other public health measures until a significant portion of the population is vaccinated.
Health officials reported 2,139 cases and 26 additional deaths Wednesday, marking the sixth day in a row in which the state has confirmed more than 2,000 cases. The state has tallied 223,140 cases and 4,280 deaths since the start of the outbreak.
The rolling average of daily new cases has increased 59.2% over the past two weeks, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins.
The governor once again said Wednesday that he had no plans to institute any shutdowns or other statewide measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, having lifted most of the state’s remaining restrictions this fall.
“When you close down a business, you’re killing that business,” McMaster said.
State Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, called on McMaster in a letter Wednesday to more forcefully address the pandemic by devoting more money to helping schools stay open, providing small business grants and instituting a short, “maybe 90-day” mask mandate.
“Your occasional plea has fallen on deaf ears in many locales,” Hutto wrote.
The rise in cases has forced many parts of the state to reconsider restrictions loosened in the past few months, sending some schools back to virtual learning.
That some school districts still have not returned to in-person learning five days a week has frustrated McMaster, whose administration released Wednesday a survey of 15 districts, out of the state’s 81, that had returned to face-to-face instruction on weekdays. The governor said it is crucial that schools reopen fully in-person, for the sake of both students’ learning and emotional progress and the state’s workforce and economy.
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.