COLUMBIA — South Carolina is expanding who's allowed to give COVID-19 vaccines in an effort to get shots into arms faster amid escalating frustrations with the state's slow rollout.
A pair of major hospitals say they could vaccinate up to 10,000 people a day — three times more than their current capacity — with added help to administer shots as shipments ramp up.
Meanwhile, the state's public health agency is giving up on finding the close contacts of every person infected after becoming overwhelmed with a sharp rise in COVID cases.
An agreement signed Thursday between the state's public health and licensing agencies means retired nurses, medical students, assistants and others with a medical certification can start giving the vaccines as long as they enroll in the federal COVID-19 vaccine program. It's unclear how many people will sign up to be added to the endeavor.
Those currently able to give the vaccine in South Carolina include doctors, physician assistants, pharmacists and advanced practice nurses. A registered nurse can through doctor's orders. And emergency medical technicians can if they've taken a two-hour training course and meet other conditions, including on-site supervision, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
"This joint order proactively puts us in a position to have an increased number of people who can administer vaccine when the vaccine is more widely available to everyone,” said Marshall Taylor, DHEC's acting director.
Agency officials contend there are enough health care workers under existing law to dole out the state's current vaccine supply, so the current rules on who can give shots haven't contributed to the slow pace people are complaining about. But failing to expand the pool of vaccinators would hinder a ramp-up in federally supplied vaccines.
If DHEC hadn't introduced the change, legislators were prepared to force the expansion.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, intended Thursday to fast-track legislation to temporarily change state law to expand the pool of health care workers legally able to administer the vaccines. The group of people who can do so now is too small, hospital administrators told his subcommittee.
The Medical University of South Carolina vaccinated 3,000 people Wednesday and hopes to ramp that up to 10,000 daily by month's end. The change will help significantly, said Dr. Patrick Cawley, chief executive of MUSC Heath, adding "but we also need the vaccine supplies.
"We'll be able to vaccinate more people and more cost-effectively," Cawley told senators about the request. "It does it in a safe way and in a quick way, as well."
Prisma Health, the state's largest hospital system, is setting up mass vaccination centers in Columbia and Greenville, where it also expects to ramp up to 10,000 total shots daily within the next few weeks.
Minutes before Davis was set to bring the legislation to the Senate floor for discussion, the governor's office informed him the authority was being given, he said.
But he didn't drop it completely. If the agreement between DHEC and the state Department of Labor Licensing and Regulation doesn't go far enough, Davis said he'll resume pursing the expansion through legislation.
As of Wednesday, 52 percent of the 195,200 Pfizer vaccine doses sent to South Carolina since mid-December had been given to eligible health care workers and first-responders. An additional 119,105 doses are reserved by appointments, according to DHEC.
South Carolinians ages 70 and older, who became newly eligible for the vaccine Wednesday, found they couldn't get an appointment for weeks, if at all.
"We’re obviously having logistical problems now. It will be that much more dysfunctional once the supply ramps up," Davis said about the need for the expansion.
It's a no-brainer, he added: "We're talking about sticking a needle in people’s arms."
Last week, the state's public health director told reporters DHEC was exploring expanding who can give shots. But the agency did not respond to follow-up questions at the time on what’s required to do that or what was holding that up. It remains unclear.
The signed order indicates DHEC has had the authority since March, when McMaster first declared a state of emergency and activated the state's Emergency Health Powers Act.
Legislators, who have been inundated with complaints, weren't willing to wait any longer.
"To increase alarmingly low vaccination rates throughout the state, it is essential that the pool of health care workers authorized to administer these COVID-19 vaccines temporarily be expanded as much as possible without compromising public safety," reads the measure filed Tuesday by Sen. Mike Gambrell, R-Belton.
DHEC also shifted gears Thursday on efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.
With the number of newly reported cases in South Carolina surging past 4,000 daily — topping 5,000 one day last week — the agency is giving up on trying to conduct a close-contact investigation for every person diagnosed.
The agency has hired hundreds of workers to call people who test positive for the disease to retrace where they'd gone and identify who they potentially could have spread it to, in hopes of informing them of the need to quarantine and get tested before spreading it farther.
People are considered contagious for 48 hours before their symptoms began or, for those who are asymptomatic, before they took the test. Close contacts are people near you for at least 15 minutes.
But don't expect to get a call from DHEC about potential exposure.
Beginning Thursday, investigations will focus on where people live and work. Contact tracers will be asking people with COVID-19 who's been in their home in the last six days, and whether they work in places where they could have spread it to a lot of people.
"We're still doing contact tracing. We've not diverted any of those people to any other task," said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC's public health director. "At this point, there's just so much spread" it's impossible to identify everyone.
"How much virus is out there is just so much that contact tracing alone is not going to help control it," she said.
Lauren Sausser contributed to this report.