South Carolina will expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to a much wider swath of the state’s population starting Monday and is aiming to have all interested residents vaccinated by summer, the governor announced last week.
Beginning Monday, the state will transition into Phase 1b of its vaccine rollout, which has been expanded to include all people age 55 and older; teachers, correctional officers and other frontline workers with increased occupational risk; and people age 16 to 64 with preexisting conditions, Gov. Henry McMaster said last week at a joint press conference with the state health director and state schools chief.
“In the month of February, South Carolina made tremendous progress on expanding access to the vaccinations as the supply of vaccine increased,” the governor said. “Our hospitals, pharmacies and healthcare providers became more efficient at getting large numbers of our seniors registered and vaccinated. By staying the course and resisting the loud distractions and potential disruptions, over 1 million South Carolinians have now received vaccine. Because of these successes we’re now in a position to make the majority of South Carolinians eligible to receive the vaccine.”
Those frontline workers newly eligible for the vaccine include school and daycare workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, retail workers, state, local and federal government employees and law enforcement, among others.
People who live and work in group home settings, homeless shelters, community training homes, behavioral substance abuse group homes and migrant farmworkers who live in shared housing are also included in Phase 1b, McMaster said.
Pre-existing health conditions that would qualify someone for the vaccine include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, Down syndrome, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, obesity, sickle cell anemia and pregnancy.
People with developmental disabilities or other disabilities that put them at high risk of developing severe illness or dying from COVID-19 infection are also included.
State Department of Health and Environmental Control director Edward Simmer said newly eligible frontline workers and people with preexisting conditions will not be required to show proof they actually meet Phase 1b criteria, but encouraged residents to be truthful about their jobs and medical condition when seeking out the vaccine.
“We’ll trust South Carolinians to do that,” he said. “I think the vast majority will be honorable and do the right thing.”
Simmer said the expanded Phase 1b would include approximately 2.7 million South Carolinians, or nearly five times as many as had originally been included in the phase. That means starting Monday more than half of South Carolina residents will be eligible for inoculations.
“That will really take us forward and get us closer to the herd immunity that we seek, which is 70-80% of the population of South Carolina being vaccinated,” he said, calling the transition to Phase 1b a “very giant step forward” for the state.
The eligibility expansion comes as South Carolina receives its first allotment of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization late last month.
The state received roughly 41,000 doses of the new vaccine last week to bring its total weekly vaccine haul to nearly 150,000 doses, about 40% more than the week prior.
State officials have long said they would make decisions about when to move into Phase 1b based on supply of and demand for the vaccine.
Simmer said last week that the additional supply of Johnson & Johnson doses combined with a faster-than-expected rise in vaccine administration had allowed the state to move into the next phase of the rollout sooner than the mid-to-late March estimate he’d given lawmakers last week.
“Right now, we are filling almost all of our appointments, but we are seeing a decrease in the wait lists, we’re seeing some evidence that we’re starting to work through the group in 1a,” he said. “And that’s why it’s time to go to 1b, because we certainly see in the very near future that we won’t be filling all of our appointments, especially if we make more appointments because we have more vaccine.”
As of Monday, the state had received more than 1.6 million first and second doses of coronavirus vaccine and administered more than 1.2 million of those doses, according to DHEC.
More than 840,000 people, or about 16% of the state’s population and 65% of the individuals in Phase 1a, have received at least one shot.
Based on the state’s current vaccine supply levels, DHEC anticipates moving to Phase 1c in early-to-mid April and the final vaccination phase, Phase 2, in early May.
The revamped Phase 1c will include all people age 45 and older and essential workers not included in 1b — such as construction workers, utility workers and delivery drivers — because they do not have frequent close contact with others in their work environment.
Phase 2 will include all South Carolinians age 16 and older.
“Our anticipation is that by summer, every South Carolinian will have had access to this vaccine, and hopefully we’ll be very close to herd immunity by then,” Simmer said. “And with that, we can start to return to normalcy.”
For now, however, residents are being encouraged to continue taking precautions such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds and trying to maintain a safe distance from others, even if they’ve already been vaccinated.
“In South Carolina, we have a well-deserved reputation for taking care of each other, and I think the past year has certainly shown how well to do that,” Simmer said. “If we can just stick with this for a few more months, we’re going to get there. We’re going to beat this.”