COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Getting the vaccine into the arms of those 65 years and older in South Carolina has been the focus for Governor McMaster and health officials in recent weeks.
On Friday, the South Carolina AARP hosted a statewide Q&A telephone town hall for thousands of its members across the state, where listeners could voice their questions and concerns directly to Governor Henry McMaster, State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell, and DHEC Director Edward Simmer.
“Our main focus is to keep people alive,” Governor McMaster said during the call. “That means doctors, nurses, those who protect, take care of us and keep us from dying are the ones we must protect; and we must concentrate on our elderly population.”
Getting an appointment was a central concern for those who participated in the town hall, with some callers saying they were able to get their first dose, and are now having to wait weeks past the optimal 3-4 week time period to get their second dose. Others saying they haven’t been able to make an appointment at all.
DHEC Director Edward Simmer said that part of the problem over the last week was shipment delays due to the inclement weather around the country.
“One of the challenges for us has been that the vaccines are shipped in a real-time way and they come to us through some mid-west locations,” Simmer said. “With the big storms that they’ve had out west over the last few weeks, we’ve had some delays in getting vaccines shipped to us.”
However, Simmer said that the good news is that the second doses are effective up to six weeks after receiving the first dose and will still give full protection.
Another concern was delayed or canceled appointments this week.
“Not only did my vaccine get canceled, but I have not heard from them at all,” Hank Povinelli, Lancaster County resident who was on the call, said. “‘We will let you know’ just adds to the frustrations because now I need to get on the phone, call them and find out, what (they) are doing about it.”
Another concern was that those in rural areas didn’t have as much access to the vaccine.
“If you’re not a resident of Charleston or Columbia, the chance of getting a vaccine is very limited because the distribution, in my opinion, has not been very equitable,” Povinelli said.
DHEC officials stressed they are working to get the vaccine to all rural communities with mobile units and by increasing the number of providers
“Early on the vaccine effort kind of focused on medical providers who tend to be located in urban areas,” Simmer said. “But we are committed to making sure our rural areas have equal access to the vaccine.”
McMaster stood by his message that those of 65 are at the greatest risk of dying from the virus and South Carolina must continue to focus on getting the vaccine to the elderly.
“We know that most of the deaths and serious illness occurs in older people,” McMaster said. “We know the average age of a person who has died in South Carolina from the virus, perhaps exacerbating other underlying conditions, is 75 years old.”
AARP’s South Carolina Branch Director, Teresa Arnold, thanked McMaster for prioritizing those over 65 during the call, stressing that the data shows 81% of those who have died in South Carolina have been over the age of 65.
Other questions during the town hall centered around protective measures that individuals need to be taking both before and after getting the vaccine. Dr. Linda Bell said it’s important for everyone to wear a mask with at least two layers of fabric, and that if you don’t have a well-fitting mask, it might be a good idea to wear two masks.
She also clarified that once an individual has been vaccinated, it’s still important to follow protective measures like social distancing and mask-wearing because while the vaccine will prevent severe disease, it doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from getting COVID-19 or spreading it to others.
If you are having trouble getting an appointment DHEC officials recommended calling DHEC’s vaccine Care Line at 1-855-472-3432 to have someone assist you in booking an appointment.