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COVID-19 vaccinations open for Upstate seniors but availability is limited

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GREENVILLE — On the first day those age 70 and older become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Upstate's chief health provider said on Wednesday it has the capacity to administer vaccines but not enough supply, leading to limited availability.

In a media briefing on Wednesday, Prisma Health officials overseeing inoculations pleaded with the public to be patient with an overwhelmed system.

“Please know that we are working very hard on all the details in an environment that is changing by the minute,” said Prisma Health Chief Ambulatory Medical Officer Dr. Saria Saccocio, who along with CEO Mark O'Halla head the system's vaccine task force.

Early in the morning, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's interactive map showing where vaccine appointments are available showed nothing but red dots in the Upstate, which indicated no availability.

By afternoon, the dots that represent Prisma hospitals had turned green.

In South Carolina, the vaccine is available now as part of "Phase 1a" to health care providers and as of this week anyone in the public 70 or older.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday authorized availability to anyone 65 or older. Prisma will take appointment requests from people as young as 65 but must wait for guidance from Gov. Henry McMaster on whether anyone younger than 70 who is not hospitalized can receive the vaccine, Saccocio said.

Prisma is working to expand vaccination efforts beyond hospitals and later this month will begin mobilizing what will be three medical vans provided by Greenville County through its federal CARES funding, O'Halla said.

The capacity to administer is in place, he said.

But for now, with 64,000 doses being delivered to the state each week, supply is limited, he said. For perspective, he said, the state will need 10 million doses — it requires to two shots to be effective — to cover the state's 5 million population.

“We need everyone to be patient," O'Halla said. "The limiting factor right now today is the number of doses that we receive.”

On Tuesday, the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control told lawmakers in a hearing at the Capitol that the newly eligible should expect "green will probably turn red pretty quick." When McMaster authorized the new eligibility, DHEC's webpage crashed and the phone line overwhelmed.

The logjam, Saccocio said, has one silver lining: The demand indicates health experts' insistence on widespread participation appears to be heeded and perhaps will overcome reports of reluctance in the community.

“This is exactly what we need in the state of South Carolina — the interest and energy to be vaccinated against this deadly virus,” she said.

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The inundation comes from seniors who are statistically mostly likely to die from complications associated with COVID-19. It's unclear what the level of interest will be when the vaccine is open to the general public.

The vaccine needs to be administered to about 70 percent of the population to get to the point that the virus doesn't spread in the community, or perhaps higher, a Post and Courier analysis found. Currently, the analysis found, only about 4.6 percent of the state's population is known to likely to have natural immunity, with a unknown number more who's infections weren't reported.

It probably won't be until summer that 75 percent of the state population will be vaccinated, O'Halla said.

Prisma has provided 22,000 vaccines to those healthcare workers first in line, at 2,000 per day, he said.

Next in line are teachers, first responders, bus drivers and factory workers. Following that are people with underlying health conditions and more essential workers like truckers, homebuilders and the media.

The public can request appointments online at the DHEC site or prismahealth.org/vaccine or by phone at 833-2PRISMA. The system requests the patients don't call their family doctors or pharmacies for guidance, because they don't have access to the scheduling system.

The immediacy to vaccinate the public comes as COVID cases day after day reach record highs in every category.

The rate of those testing positive in South Carolina has hovered around a stunning 30 percent since the holidays. The positivity rate in the Upstate, which ranks first in the U.S. in severity of outbreak among mid-sized regions, is 40 percent, O'Halla said.

World Health Organization guidelines suggest that spread isn't considered under control until positivity rates are at least 5 percent over a two-week period.

Now, more than 2,400 COVID patients are hospitalized in the Prisma system, representing 30 percent of overall patients, O'Halla said.

By comparison, the summer spike that prompted officials to desperately seek the public's help in following preventative guidelines saw about 320 patients admitted per day, he said. Today, the number is an "exponential surge" of 575 per day.

The hospitals face diminishing available beds with the added problem of currently 180 clinical workers unavailable because of COVID infection, he said.

On Monday, he said, Prisma will use its hospital in Laurens as a "step down" unit, which will accommodate patients who no longer suffer acute COVID symptoms but still require hospitalization.

Since March, more than 326,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in South Carolina, causing at least 5,315 deaths.

Coronavirus will likely rank as the third leading cause of death in South Carolina in 2020, behind cancer and heart disease.

Follow Eric on Twitter at @cericconnor.

Reporter/Local Editor

Eric is a reporter and local editor for The Post and Courier in Greenville. Previously with The Greenville News, he's covered the Upstate for two decades and served as a USA TODAY correspondent. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina.

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