DHEC cuts off Horry government’s vaccine supply after unauthorized people received doses

Mary Norkol, J. Dale Shoemaker
·6 min read

Horry County gave the COVID-19 vaccine to unauthorized people under the current phase of the state’s rollout plan, resulting in the county government being barred from receiving more doses for the time being, according to state health officials.

County employees and some of their friends and family have been vaccinated in the last month, and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control confirmed that some people were outside of the designated Phase 1A of the state’s vaccination plan, DHEC spokesperson Laura Renwick wrote in an email to The Sun News.

She confirmed that DHEC’s decision to pause vaccine shipments to Horry County was also due to the county allowing friends and relatives of employees and officials to receive vaccines.

Phase 1A includes healthcare workers, people 65 and older, residents and employees of long-term care facilities and “mission-critical” state and local employees.

Who counts as “mission-critical” in Horry County government has become a topic of dispute as the county received and distributed doses of the Moderna vaccine to its workforce. DHEC’s definition of “mission-critical” follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allows some government employees to be vaccinated under Phase 1A, and most others under Phase 1B.

Horry County has run its vaccine program believing that all county employees were mission critical. DHEC now says that’s not right.

In a Jan. 15 email to all county employees, including elected and appointed officials, the county’s human resources department informed employees that all “fulltime, part-time, and temporary employees, as well as volunteers and interns who work within the capacity of County departments,” would be eligible to receive the vaccine through Horry County Fire Rescue.

The Sun News confirmed last week that the county later amended its rollout policy to allow friends and relatives of county employees and officials to receive the vaccine, too. Ben Lawson, the head of the county’s emergency medical services division, wrote in a Feb. 15 email that the county had consulted with two DHEC officials before implementing its distribution plan.

In a Tuesday morning email sent to Randy Webster, the county’s assistant administrator for public safety, by DHEC Deputy Branch Chief of Immunization Louis Eubank said the agency had identified groups who aren’t included in Phase 1A but who had received the vaccine.

“As we discussed, law enforcement officers, public safety officers, county administrative staff, or other similar individuals are not Phase 1A eligible, and instead fall to Phase 1B, Phase 1C, or even Phase 2,” Eubank wrote in the email obtained by The Sun News.

He added: “DHEC will not be providing additional first dose vaccine to Horry County Fire/Rescue, but we may schedule time to discuss this with you further once your current supply of vaccines is administered.”

DHEC has shipped 3,800 first doses of the Moderna vaccine to Horry County, and 1,600 second doses as of Tuesday afternoon.

The county has 2,567 employees, according to its 2021 budget.

DHEC deferred to Horry County when asked for a list of county employees and “designees” who received the vaccine. According to interviews, two employees in the county’s Register of Deeds office signed up to get the vaccine so that elderly relatives could also secure an appointment, and County Council member Harold Worley, who’s 71, said he helped an elderly friend schedule an appointment with the county, too.

Emails and phone messages seeking comment by The Sun News were left with Horry County spokeswoman Kelly Moore.

County Council member Johnny Vaught said he hasn’t yet been briefed on the dispute between DHEC and the county, but wants answers about who in the county is allowed to receive the vaccine, who isn’t and how the county moves forward from here.

“I think the whole thing is a comedy of errors myself because you can’t get two people across the hall from each other at DHEC to agree on a point and that’s how it’s been since the start of the pandemic,” he said. “I think there’s enough blame to go around on both sides. I’m just interested in moving forward.”

How we got here

DHEC initially contacted Horry County last weekend after reports from WMBF News indicated ineligible people were receiving the vaccine. In that letter, DHEC asked the county for clarification on their vaccine distribution efforts and if the county intentionally gave vaccines to people outside the current eligibility requirements.

Some county employees received the vaccine at Horry County Fire Rescue and were allowed to bring a “designee” to also receive the vaccine, Ben Lawson, the county’s emergency medical services manager, wrote in a Feb. 15 email to DHEC. Worley described the model as employees and officials being allowed to bring a “plus one” to get vaccinated at the M.L. Brown Public Safety Building in Conway.

That appears to be a change in policy after the county’s human resources department initially told employees in the Jan. 15 email that family members wouldn’t be able to receive the vaccine.

Lawson wrote that he spoke with two DHEC representatives before vaccinations began. Under their advice, he wrote, the county “planned to use the allotment of vaccines with the understanding from (the two DHEC officials) to do so as quickly as possible and with as little waste as possible.”

“In consideration of that guidance, employees who opted to receive the vaccine were granted a designee to also receive a vaccine with an emphasis on those who met Phase lA criteria,” Lawson wrote.

DHEC and county officials, including Webster, met Monday to discuss how the county was distributing its vaccine, and Eubank told the county that some employees should not have been vaccinated, including police officers, other public safety officers and administrative staff.

Eubank noted that the county could refer to federal guidance to determine which employees are included in Phase 1A and which are not. While the CDC recommends that most government employees be vaccinated under Phase 1B, DHEC is allowing “mission critical” government employees to be included in South Carolina’s Phase 1A. Renwick, the DHEC spokesperson, also pointed to the CDC guidance in response to a question about which employees count as “mission critical” under Phase 1A.

In his email Tuesday, Eubank noted that the county “should only be given to out-of-phase persons as a last resort to avoid waste.”

But given that a majority of county employees have received their first dose, but fewer have received their second dose, DHEC’s pause on shipping more vaccines to Horry County raises a question about if all county employees will be able to receive both doses.

“If they cut us off from the second dose and we don’t have enough first doses to cover that, what do we do,” Vaught said. “Leave people out there hanging?”