COLUMBIA, S.C. — Teachers, grocery store employees and other frontline essential workers in South Carolina could be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in two to three weeks, the state’s top health official told lawmakers Tuesday.
Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Dr. Edward Simmer said his agency is watching vaccine appointments closely to see when to make the vaccine available to more people in the state.
The House committee was considering resolutions to bump teachers up in the state’s vaccine line in a push to require schools to reopen for in-person learning. The Senate passed a proposal to do just that earlier in the month, and the state Department of Education says all public school districts have vaccination plans in place for their employees.
But even if South Carolina starts inoculating school employees immediately, by the time teachers get both doses of the vaccine and build up immunity, it will be the end of the school year, Simmer said. And recent federal guidance indicates that vaccine access isn’t a prerequisite to opening schools, Simmer added.
“I would love to vaccinate them today if I had the vaccine to give them. But I just don’t,” Simmer said.
South Carolina has received just under a million vaccine doses from the federal government so far, with about half a million people who’ve gotten at least one dose. Simmer said he expects the state to receive incremental increases in its allocations over the next month.
Lawmakers have struggled to find a place for teachers in the state’s vaccine plan without pitting them against seniors, who are much more likely to die from the virus, and the many other groups of essential workers who have made their case to legislators this month. It’s a push that is losing momentum in the state as South Carolina moves closer to make more people eligible for the vaccine.
State health officials say vaccinating seniors before teachers will save lives and keep hundreds of people out of the hospital. Gov. Henry McMaster has said he would oppose plans that would push seniors further back in line.
“It’s still the Hunger Games,” Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said.
Currently, the state is in Phase 1A, with an estimated eligible population of more than 1.2 million people, including health care workers and residents 65 and older. The health department estimates more than half a million people will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Phase 1B of the state’s plan, which currently includes teachers and other frontline essential workers.
State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman asked lawmakers to consider putting teachers at the top of the list for Phase 1B, a request her agency has previously made with the state’s vaccine advisory committee.
“Everybody’s going to be chomping at the bits together,” Spearman said.
Of the more than 1,200 schools in the state, nearly 700 have brought students back into the classroom, Spearman said Tuesday. Only about 20 schools remain completely virtual.
Tuesday also marked the first time the health agency has cracked down on a vaccine provider for administering shots to people not currently eligible. Horry County Fire Rescue will no longer receive first doses of the vaccine after the enrolled provider offered the shots to all county employees, news outlets reported.
The rolling average number of daily new cases in the state over the past two weeks has dropped by 845.1, a decrease of 26.3%, according to data from Johns Hopkins. There were 731.4 new cases per 100,000 people in South Carolina over the past two weeks, which ranks second in the country for new cases per capita.