More people will soon have access to COVID-19 vaccines after South Carolina enters phase 1b of its vaccination plan starting next Monday.
Since the vaccines first became available in December, providers have focused on inoculating health care workers, people in long-term care facilities and the elderly. Starting Monday, anyone age 55 and older, anyone with high-risk medical conditions or developmental or other severe high-risk disability that increases risk of severe COVID-19 disease and any frontline workers with increased risk of exposure will be able to get vaccinated.
“We were really starting to see the 65-plus population capped out, and we were really having to reach to get more, so it’s about time to expand the population,” said Jim Pfeiffer, CEO and president of Self Regional Healthcare. “It was easy with age, but now it’s not going to be so easy.”
The phase 1a group was easier to identify — presenting an ID could prove their age and that they qualified to receive the vaccine. In phase 1b, the medical conditions that could qualify someone as having increased risk of severe illness include current cancer, chronic kidney or lung disease, diabetes, Down syndrome, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, obesity or a solid organ transplant.
Dr. Matt Logan, Self’s chief medical officer, said he reached out to the state Hospital Association to ask for guidance on how to identify people qualified to receive the vaccine. It can be hard to verify these conditions, and hospital officials don’t want to require a doctor’s note confirming a diagnosis.
“We’re not trying to make it difficult — if someone’s going to go to the extent to sign up to get a vaccination, we’d rather vaccinate them than turn them away,” Pfeiffer said.
Instead of asking for proof, Logan said the hospital will likely require people to sign a statement attesting that they meet the qualifications. There will have to be a certain level of trust in people signing up, he said.
This is a problem that goes away over time, Pfeiffer said. Once vaccine supplies are available to meet the level of demand, there won’t be a need to qualify anyone for any phase, and instead, providers will be able to vaccinate anyone who wants it at any time.
The supply of vaccines has proven a bit volatile, varying slightly from week to week. Self is receiving its supply of first doses on Mondays, with doses for people getting their second shots arriving on Wednesdays, but the hospital hasn’t always received the number of doses it requests.
“We really time each week or we schedule each week based on what we think our supplies are going to be,” Pfeiffer said.
Last week, Logan said the hospital was doing about 500-750 doses a day, but that’s in part because of shipping uncertainties because of weather-related delays in other states. The hospital is capable of doing upwards of about 1,000-1,200 doses a day, given the supply.
Starting Monday, interest in vaccines is expected to jump again, and Self is at the ready.
“Obviously the attention and desire to get vaccinated is going to ramp up very quickly,” he said. “We’ll schedule as many as we’ve got, as long as we’ve got vaccine to give.”
Logan said he knows DHEC is receiving more than 40,000 doses of the recently approved Johnson and Johnson single-shot vaccine soon, and while Self will be requesting some they don’t know what they’ll receive. Self has been using the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, though last week a shipment of surplus Moderna vaccines made its way to Self from the federal government, and was used to target underserved populations in Saluda.
Among the populations soon qualified to get vaccinated are teachers and school staff, and Self staff members are working out the logistics on how they’ll vaccinate local school officials in the coming weeks, Logan said.
In the meantime, while cases and infection rates appear to be plateauing, Pfeiffer said this is no time to let our guards down. As people get more access to the vaccine, we need to continue wearing masks in public, practicing hand hygiene and maintaining social distancing to avoid spreading COVID-19.
“The sooner we get people vaccinated and immune, the sooner we get away from the risk of replication of a new type of variant strain,” Pfeiffer said.