As demand for the vaccine grows, rural clinics audible under pressure

Updated: Feb. 8, 2021 at 7:48 PM EST
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SALUDA, S.C. (WIS) - On Monday, the number of people in South Carolina who can request a COVID-19 vaccine appointment grew by 309,000.

People ages 65 to 69 can now request an appointment, and some rural clinic leaders say they’ve had to change tactics to meet demand even before the new group arrived.

In Saluda, Emmanuel Family Clinic Officer Manager Debra Cleveland said her office has administered one out of 400 doses it has received in the last three weeks.

Cleveland said her first dose is the only dose that’s been administered.

She said VAMS, the much-maligned online federal scheduling program, has crippled her community’s ability to get vaccinated.

“There are a lot of people who do not know how to read, how to write,” she said. “There are people who have other languages, a lot of the people, especially 70 or above, there are people who have no computers, who have never worked on a computer in their life. They have no idea what to do.”

The doses are nearing their expiration of 30 days, so Cleveland and her staff will be instituting a paper-based model on Tuesday, where patients will schedule appointments and fill out questionnaires onsite. Staff will later fill the data into VAMS.

“[It’s] extremely frustrating because of the fact that everybody talks about we’re having such a hard time getting the shots and this stuff, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not the problem. We have the vaccine. We can’t give the vaccine,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘But you’ve got it? Why not?’ I’m like, ‘That’s the way because that’s the way it’s written up. That’s the way the rules are. You have to go by the rules.’”

She said she has a long list of patients looking to be vaccinated and is confident the doses will be used in time. She said those looking to schedule an appointment should call the office.

In Prosperity, Lovelace Family Medicine CEO Dr. Oscar Lovelace said his office is seeing thousands of calls, and his company website has crashed twice as people look for vaccine options.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control online vaccine map shows his office is just one of two in Newberry accepting appointments.

Lovelace said his office has been forced to move around VAMS, and create its own online framework for scheduling appointments and reminding patients.

“By having all that work done in advance, as far as the clinical data entry and whatnot, it allows it to be a much more [pleasurable] experience. People are not having to wait in a long line,” he said.

Lovelace added his office is currently scheduling appointments one to two weeks out for the Pfizer vaccine, and DHEC data shows it’s administered more than 1,500 Pfizer doses.

DHEC is in the process of rolling out a smoother scheduling system, which would improve user experience with VAMS.

On Friday, February 5, DHEC announced it would be moving an additional 10,000 Moderna doses per week for three weeks toward rural clinics.

Lovelace said his office likely won’t benefit from the doses because of its ability to use Pfizer, which requires special freezers. Moderna only requires traditional refrigeration, making it easier to roll out in rural communities.

For those looking to schedule with Lovelace Family Medicine, he encouraged patients to use the online portal on its website.

Other clinics can be found via DHEC’s vaccine map or by contacting its vaccine care line at 1-866-365-8110.

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