SC public health leader worried about another surge in COVID cases

Updated: Mar. 16, 2021 at 6:33 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - New daily cases, deaths, and hospitalization due to COVID-19 are all down in South Carolina, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. However, state public health leaders are afraid that can change in the next few weeks.

“We’ve been going in the right direction for many weeks now…but I’m nervous,” State Assistant Epidemiologist Dr. Jane Kelly said. “Springtime is here, and people are more likely to go on vacations, spring break, get together, go to the beach, go to places where they like to travel, [and] gather indoors. And I’m really worried about a surge,” she said.

Kelly said the spikes in cases in European countries and the increased spread of more contagious variants of the virus are signs that it is still too soon for South Carolinians to become complacent.

Specifically, Kelly is keeping a close eye on increased family gatherings this spring especially around the upcoming holidays.

“I just have my fingers crossed. I suspect we are going to see some increase in cases two weeks after Easter, but I hope it’s not a huge surge and we can bring it under control,” she said. “People are getting vaccinated, that’s great, we’re getting more and more vaccine out every day, but it’s not enough to stop outbreaks,” she said.

While Kelly says anyone who wants a vaccine in South Carolina will be able to get one soon, and the good news is people are less hesitant about the vaccine now as they were a few months ago.

In particular, Kelly is optimistic about nationwide trends showing the gap in willingness to get vaccinated along racial lines is shrinking.

“The number of for example African Americans or Hispanic Latinos who are answering they’re still waiting and seeing [whether to get the vaccine] is closely approaching the same proportion of white people,” she said referencing a Kaiser Family Foundation poll that asks people monthly about their attitudes towards the vaccine.

Kelly said she is seeing similar trends in South Carolina. She explained the introduction of the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the wider availability of walk-in clinics that don’t require an appointment, public information campaigns, and people seeing their friends and family safely receive the vaccine is helping bridge the gap.

“The limitation right now is the number of doses of vaccine. So, as we get more vaccines, I think we’re going to see this shadow of vaccine hesitancy disappear. It’s almost becoming, at least in terms of across racial-ethnic groups, a bit of a mythology,” she said.

However, Kelly is keeping a close eye on disparities in vaccinations among different demographics because that data could show that access to the vaccine is a barrier for some.

“We’re concerned about people of color who live in rural areas who may not have internet access or even an email address, who are unable to navigate the complicated system of making an appointment to get vaccinated and we’re trying to address that and working with our vaccine providers who are running mass vaccination events, who have mobile clinics going out to some of these underserved areas to try and mitigate these disparities,” she said.

Recently, Kelly said she is more concerned about young adults becoming more vaccine-hesitant. Kelly said part of that may be because young people see themselves at less risk of contracting or getting seriously ill from the virus, so they are less eager to get the shot.

But Kelly warns young people that even if they have an asymptomatic or mild case of COVID-19, there is still a chance they could have lingering symptoms of the virus-like brain fog and fatigue.

“It’s important to save lives. You know those people who make a decision to not get vaccinated, are making a decision. They’re making a decision of placing themselves at risk for severe disease or for chronic complications or possible death. So, why do we care if people are vaccine-hesitant because we want to make sure that we answer their questions,” Kelly said.

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