South Carolina Opens Up Vaccine Access To Most Of State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The majority of people living in South Carolina will be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine starting next week, state officials announced Tuesday.

The state will move to Phase 1B of its vaccine plan beginning Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster said at a news conference. Teachers, grocery store employees and people with certain medical conditions can sign up for vaccine appointments then.

Officials estimate that 2.7 million people will be newly eligible for the vaccine in the state with a population of about 5 million.

People 55 and older and those with increased risk for severe COVID-19, including people with certain developmental disabilities and individuals with medical conditions such as heart disease or sickle cell disease, will become eligible.

Frontline employees who work in-person jobs that put them at increased risk of exposure to others also will be eligible. Those workers include day care and grocery store employees, manufacturing workers and law enforcement officers.

People who meet the age requirement can show vaccine providers an identification card, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Dr. Edward Simmer said. Otherwise, providers will have to rely on the honesty of South Carolinians who attest that they meet one of the other qualifications.

The last priority phase, 1C, is estimated to begin in mid-April. That includes people 45 and older and essential workers. Officials estimate Phase 2, which includes everyone else 16 and up who hasn’t yet been vaccinated, to start in May.

“Please don’t jump ahead,” Simmer said.

More than 600,000 people in the state have already received at least their first dose of the vaccine. The vast majority of those belong to Phase 1A of the state’s vaccine plan, which includes health care workers, residents and staff in long-term care facilities and people 65 and older.

Simmer said the state is ready to get more shots in arms because of a bump in vaccine supply, as well as progress being made in the current eligible population.

The state will get more than 40,000 doses of the newly approved single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. The vaccine, which also has less stringent storage requirements than the Moderna and Pfizer options, won’t be targeted toward any certain populations, Simmer said.

Still, the health department will look at allocating the Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to smaller providers in underserved areas without the storage capacity for the other vaccines, he added. The new vaccine could also be used in mass vaccination clinics where it is harder for people to get a second dose.

Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said school districts should start reaching out to vaccine providers immediately to schedule teacher-specific clinics, which will let teachers get vaccinated faster.

McMaster and Spearman pushed school districts on Tuesday to open five days a week for in-person learning, given the new vaccine eligibility. McMaster urged state lawmakers to bring a bill to his desk that would require districts give parents that option.

“There are no more excuses or justifications for every one of our schools not to be open for five-days-a-week, face-to-face instruction,” McMaster said.

The announcement comes months after teacher groups started pushing for priority status in the state’s vaccination plan, saying that teachers in quarantine and on medical leave were exacerbating a long-running staffing shortage and making in-person teaching difficult.

The Palmetto State Teachers Association noted that McMaster could have prioritized educators without delaying vaccines for seniors. “Instead, today’s action means many teachers will not be able to secure a vaccine appointment for weeks or months,” the group said in a statement.

Lawmakers had started working on resolutions to prioritize teachers and require schools to open back up, though those proposals stalled in a House committee after many other groups of essential workers to legislators in a hearing. Other legislators said the move to bump up teachers could pit them against seniors still struggling for vaccine access.