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Vaccine Advisory Committee navigates guidance for Phase 1b as DHEC tackles vaccine distribution challenges

Updated: Jan. 13, 2021 at 7:51 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WMBF) - As South Carolina continues to forge ahead with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine during Phase 1a, DHEC and its advisory committee are working to expand its scope while determining who best to bring it to next.

The Vaccine Advisory Committee met virtually Wednesday to continue discussing what the next phases should look like past Phase 1a. DHEC has been receiving requests from community groups, organizations and employers, petitioning why they should be included in certain phases.

FORGING AHEAD | WMBF investigates South Carolina’s vaccine distribution process

“We’re having to make decisions that we just don’t want to make,” said Dr. Linda Bell, DHEC’s state epidemiologist, who leads the VAC meetings. “We wish that the supply of the vaccine was more adequate.”

Phase 1a has changed over time, in scope and number, while vaccine allocations to the state more-or-less have not. When the phase began to cater to frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents and staff, DHEC estimated about 350,000 people would be included. But this number has since increased by hundreds of thousands with the addition of those 70 years of age and older.

In contrast, the state receives approximately 30,000 doses of Moderna and 30,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine each week.

On Wednesday, the committee made a motion for a vote for the first time to decide whether or not the sub-prioritization of phases should exist - as in, if a certain group or groups listed in a phase would receive chief priority before others.

LIST | COVID-19 vaccine distribution phases, who receives vaccine in each phase

Some committee members voiced concerns over this wondering if it could add to further logistical challenges.

The vote ultimately led to 20 against sub-prioritization within their recommendations, with three in favor of keeping this a possibility.

It’s ultimately in opposition with the S.C. Department of Education’s call for teachers and staff in K-12 education settings to be prioritized within Phase 1b.

RELATED COVERAGE | Committee votes not to sub-prioritize groups in Phase 1B of S.C. COVID-19 vaccine plan

Some members also reiterated the desire for keeping at-risk populations in mind when discussing Phase 1b.

According to a presentation by Dr. Jane Kelly, DHEC’s assistant state epidemiologist, Phase 1b is thought to include frontline essential workers who are at an increased and substantial risk for being exposed to the virus by virtue of their occupation. Officials are wary of including every worker that is an essential service because it could delay the transition to Phase 1c.

Bell also cautioned the committee that preliminary reports may indicate that the federal government is giving more vaccine to states that move through their supply more quickly than others.

“States may be graded on how quickly they’re moving the vaccine,” Bell said, “And we’re in the potential to get more vaccine if we do it more quickly.”

The current trickle of vaccine is far less than the flood of interest in receiving the vaccine across the state.

Individuals who are 70 years of age or older are essentially competing with those Phase 1a frontline healthcare workers for a slot. Some hospital appointments aren’t available for months in advance.

“Without speaking for them, I would imagine they’re basing these appointments in the future, assuming a steady rate of vaccine coming in,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC’s interim director of public health.

But the vaccine also needs to be moved to more providers to cover the gaps seen across the state. For people in rural areas, right now, Dr. Traxler says, the option is to either travel or wait as more providers are added in the coming weeks.

“It is coming soon to their community,” Traxler said.

DHEC said by the beginning of next week, 50 more providers should be available across the state to accommodate further appointments.

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