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Columbia Business Monthly

Vaccine Available, But Covid Cases Surging

Jan 13, 2021 01:24PM ● By David Dykes

By Liv Osby

As South Carolina continues to grapple with a record-breaking number of Covid-19 cases since the holidays, health officials say they are doing all they can to ramp up vaccination efforts but are constrained by the supply of vaccine.

Prisma Health CEO Mark O’Halla said new highs are being recorded every day in all categories.

“As of yesterday, there were over 2,400 hospitalized patients across the state … (accounting) for nearly 30 percent of all hospitalized patients across the state, which is also a new record,” he said at a virtual press conference Wednesday. 

“And Greenville particularly has been at the heart of that surge,” he added. “Greenville had the most infections of any midsize city in the nation this past week.”

Monday saw a positivity rate of nearly 40 percent across Greenville County, O’Halla said, noting the goal is to get that below 5 percent. 

Meanwhile, since it was announced that vaccination is now open to everyone 70 and older, Prisma Health has received thousands of calls, said Dr. Saria Saccocio, chief ambulatory medical officer.

“We’re asking the public for patience,” she said. “But we’re pleased with so much interest and excitement about receiving vaccine.”

Saccocio said people can only get vaccinated by appointment, and that they should sign up by going to www.prismahealth.org/vaccine or calling 833-2-PRISMA to get on the waiting list. 

No one should just show up or call physician practices because they can’t schedule appointments, she said.

Greenville Mayor Knox White, who also attended the press conference, said City Hall has been flooded by calls from people looking for information about vaccination schedules and locations too. 

“We don’t have that information and it’s the number one issue out there,” he said, adding that he’s hearing about difficulties getting through to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

DHEC said it’s been experiencing high call volumes and wait times.

“The Care Line was off and on this morning due to call volume,” said DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick. “It's being worked on to get it fully functioning again.”

In addition, DHEC has partnered with the state Emergency Management Division for phone line assistance for the foreseeable future, she said.

South Carolina has been getting about 64,000 doses of vaccine a week, which DHEC distributes to health systems across the state, O’Halla said.

Since Prisma got its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 15, it has provided 22,000 vaccinations across the state – about 2,000 a day, he said, including to half of the employees. That translates into 18 percent of the people in the state who have been vaccinated, he said.

“But there are about 5 million people in South Carolina, and if every person gets vaccine, we will need 10 million doses to vaccinate everyone with both shots,” he said. “The limiting factor today is number of doses we receive. We can expand capacity, but if we don’t get larger quantities into the state, additional capacity won’t help us speed up vaccinations.”

DHEC said the number of locations able to schedule appointments for vaccine is also limited by vaccine allocation, like all states. As more is distributed, more appointments can be scheduled.

Renwick said people can get information about vaccine providers on DHEC’s locator map at scdhec.gov/vaxlocator. But the status can change daily as more locations are added, including in rural and underserved communities. 

Saccocio said that next week, vaccinations will be available at additional DHEC sites, retail pharmacies and other locations and that people will be scheduled as soon as there is supply.

And Greenville County, through its CARES Act allocation, has funded three new vans that Prisma will use in mobile vaccination efforts, O’Halla said. The first will arrive at the end of January and two more will be delivered in the first week in February, he said. 

Saccocio said the vaccine is safe and effective, noting that of the 22,000 vaccinations Prisma has administered so far, there have been just three moderate reactions and no severe reactions.

Meanwhile, O’Halla said that Prisma, which held a press conference on the same topic with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin earlier in the day, has had more than 570 Covid patients a day in January, up from 320 a day across the system during the last surge in July.

“Obviously, this is making it challenging for us to make sure we have all the right staffing in the right places,” he said.

The surge is straining staff who are already stretched “incredibly thin,” he said, noting that 350 employees are out with Covid, 180 of them doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. 

Prisma is using agency staff to augment the providers, he said. And it’s managing the rush of patients by moving them from one facility that doesn’t have beds to another with capacity, he said.

“This is a process we go through day in and day out to make sure we’re getting care to patients in the best way possible,” he said. “We’ve also made decisions to postpone non-emergent cases so we have enough resources to handle the surge.”

On Jan. 18, Prisma will open a Covid step-down unit at its Laurens campus to house patients who are still sick but don’t need ICU care, freeing up ICU and other beds elsewhere for new Covid patients, O’Halla said.

White said the city of Greenville has been enforcing its mask ordinance and watching for mass gatherings, adding that about 300 compliance checks have been done since December.

Most are based on tips from the public, he said, noting that people do comply when they are reminded of the state rules.

“We continue to see too many special events being scheduled,” White said. “And we do have to be vigilant … especially in light of the vaccine coming.”

All the officials called on the public to help reduce spread of the virus by wearing a mask in public, avoiding crowds, staying 6 feet apart from others, and washing hands frequently. 

“We’re not at the end yet. We have a long way to go until we get this thing under control,” O’Halla said. “Please follow the guidelines. It will help us pull this curve down and reduce the number of patients we have.”

“We have to be mindful about avoiding crowds and wearing masks indoors,” said White. “It’s not too much to ask.”

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