Everyone 16 or older can now get a COVID vaccination in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has opened up COVID-19 vaccination to all state residents age 16 and older, saying last Friday that they could begin scheduling appointments this week and receive the vaccine starting March 31.

State officials initially had planned to implement the 16-and-up rule in May, after completing a final priority phase for people 45 and older.

“Our priority with the vaccine has been to save the lives of those at the greatest risk of dying. By staying the course and resisting distractions, we’ve expanded South Carolinians’ access and eligibility for vaccinations faster than originally anticipated,” said McMaster. “Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our state’s health care professionals, we are now able to make the vaccine available to anyone who wants it, and to do so ahead of schedule.”

South Carolina joins at least a dozen states that have opened vaccination eligibility to those 16 and over. The vaccine has not been approved for teens and children under 16.

“Literally, only in the last couple of weeks are we starting to get better data about vaccinating people and how it prevents them from getting infected,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist with the UNC School of Medicine. “The vaccine not only prevents people from getting sick and getting hospitalized and dying, but it also prevents people from getting infected, is a game-changer, that’s what we’ve been waiting for, that’s what we want.”

Janeth Cruz, a teenager, will be become eligible for the vaccine but has no plans to take it.

“I don’t think so,” Cruz said. “I don’t want to take the risk to get side effects.”

There is hesitancy but pharmacist Deborah Bowers said there are also a lot of people eager to take their shot.

“We are seeing people come out of the woodwork,” said Bowers, who owns Yorkville Pharmacy. “I had a pharmacist tell me he has more than 1,800 people on his wait list.”

On Thursday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced that all North Carolinians 16 or older will be eligible to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment starting April 7.

On March 8, South Carolina moved into Phase 1B of the vaccination plan, which allowed those 55 and older, everyone with increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease, and all frontline workers with increased occupational risk to receive the vaccine. Since then, DHEC and other vaccine providers have administered an average of 23,323 doses per day, totaling 419,816 administered doses since March 8.

“We started by making vaccine available to those who were most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19; the elderly, those with high risk of exposure at work, and those with medical conditions that worsen the effects of COVID-19,” said Dr. Edward Simmer, DHEC Director. “Today, about a year after the COVID-19 crisis began, we are now able to offer three very safe and effective vaccines to all South Carolina residents over the age of 16 -- another step on our path to take control of COVID-19 instead of it controlling us and getting back to normal.”

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In January, the governor said he was frustrated by what he characterized as a slow vaccine rollout. The Republican governor credited former President Donald Trump’s administration with the vaccines’ speedy development, but bemoaned “bottlenecks” that he said were hindering dissemination to those in the first priority group, including health care workers.

Since then, vaccines have become much more widely available in the state, and across the nation. Earlier this month, South Carolina began opening up appointments to those age 55 and up, as well as those with certain health conditions or with jobs that require them to report to work in-person.

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Ages for Vaccines: Currently, Pfizer is the only vaccine available to those aged 16-18. All three vaccines -- Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen -- are available to those ages 18 and older.

According to CDC guidelines, here’s what you can do once you’ve been fully vaccinated.

“Spring, and especially Easter, is a time of hope, and with the COVID-19 vaccines becoming available to all South Carolinians, we can all be hopeful for a better tomorrow,” said Simmer. “I encourage all South Carolinians who have not been vaccinated to receive the vaccine as soon as possible and to continue to wear their masks, and socially distance, to ensure that we save as many lives as we can.”

How to make an appointment: Online appointments can be made by using scdhec.gov/vaxlocator or you can call DHEC’s COVID-19 Vaccine Information Line at 1-866-365-8110 for help.

Janeth Cruz, a teenager, will be become eligible for the vaccine next week but has no plans to take it.

“I don’t think so,” Cruz said. “I don’t want to take the risk to get side effects.”

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Vaccinating teachers has also been a priority in South Carolina, as McMaster and others have held fast to a commitment to returning students to classrooms for full-time, in-person instruction, instead of the mix of in-person and virtual learning many districts have adopted.

Earlier this year, legislators debated pushing teachers to the front of the vaccination line, in order to more swiftly resume in-person classroom instruction, but that was scrapped in favor of adding teachers to groups already eligible.

The broad vaccination move comes as South Carolina continues to lift restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. McMaster never implemented a statewide mask mandate, but he did order mask-wearing in restaurants and some government office buildings. He lifted those orders earlier this month, leaving it up to state administrative officials and restaurant operators to develop their own guidelines.

Last month, the governor lifted bans on late-night alcohol sales and gatherings of more than 250 people. He encouraged people “to make responsible decisions” but said he believed “these targeted and limited safety measures are no longer necessary.” At the time, state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell warned that if people perceive the virus as no longer a threat, they could stop following public health guidelines and drive cases up again.

“Today, about a year after the COVID-19 crisis began, we are now able to offer three very safe and effective vaccines to all South Carolina residents over the age of 16 -- another step on our path to take control of COVID-19 instead of it controlling us and getting back to normal,” Dr. Edward Simmer, director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Friday.

*** Meg Kinnard with the Associated Press contributed to this article.