COLUMBIA (AP) — Hours after South Carolina opened up access to the coronavirus vaccine for seniors Wednesday morning, people trying to schedule their shots inundated hospitals and the health department with thousands of phone calls.
By Wednesday afternoon, more than one hospital said it had already run out of appointment slots.
It was the first day people ages 70 and older could register to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the state. Until Wednesday, the Department of Health and Environmental Control had limited vaccine access to mostly health care workers and those living and working in long-term care facilities. Some people in those groups are still being vaccinated.
The expansion came after top state officials had criticized the state's sluggish vaccine rollout for weeks. DHEC has said the pace has picked up in recent weeks, as providers had administered 65% of the state's Pfizer vaccine doses as of Tuesday, compared with about 31% in late December.
The health department announced the move to open up vaccine access to more people earlier this week.
The DHEC hotline helping people find vaccine sites was "experiencing higher than usual call volumes and wait times" by Wednesday morning, according to the department's website. More than 5,000 calls came in that morning, leading the agency to double the number of call center operators through a contractor, interim Public Health Director Brannon Traxler said.
Health officials have said they are using an appointment-only system to avoid the long lines and wait times seen in some other states.
On Wednesday, Conway Medical Center said it had reached appointment capacity "due to an overwhelming response with thousands of requests."
Kershaw Health in Camden implored people not to call its hospitals or physicians offices to schedule vaccine appointments after receiving more than 1,000 vaccination requests in two days. The health system said it was receiving only 150 to 200 doses of the vaccine a week.
Phyllis Saitz, 70, lives in North Myrtle Beach. She said she woke up at 6 a.m. Wednesday to check an online map provided by the agency showing vaccine sites. But Saitz couldn't find any near her that were accepting appointments. She sent out a few emails to some hospitals farther away, but the lack of comprehensive information left her frustrated.
"I don't think it's going to happen for a while, and I'm reconciled to that," Saitz said.
Hospitals and health officials urged patience as the state onboards more vaccine providers. On Wednesday, DHEC said it was also looking to hire 150 or more people to staff the agency's own vaccination clinics.
Some state lawmakers had voiced concern to agency officials at a committee meeting Tuesday, saying they were worried the number of seniors clamoring to get vaccinated could overwhelm vaccine sites with a limited number of initial doses. Officials estimate about 627,800 South Carolinians are 70 or older.
The state receives shipments of 64,000 or so doses weekly. State senators also cited other potential barriers seniors may face while trying to get appointments, such as internet access.
"I'm afraid we're setting them up for a big disappointment," said Sen. Sandy Senn, a Republican from Charleston.
Until the state receives larger vaccine shipments from the federal government, "this will not be a fast process," acting DHEC Director Marshall Taylor told lawmakers.
The health department is still hammering out details of who will be eligible for the vaccine in the next phase of the state's plan, projected to start in "late winter" of this year.
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