COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has opened up COVID-19 vaccination to all state residents age 16 and older, saying Friday that they could begin scheduling appointments next week and receive the vaccine starting March 31.
State officials initially had planned to implement the 16-and-up rule in May, after completing a final priority phase for people 45 and older.
“Our priority with the vaccine has been to save the lives of those at the greatest risk of dying,” McMaster said in a news release. “By staying the course and resisting distractions, we’ve expanded South Carolinians’ access and eligibility for vaccinations faster than originally anticipated.”
South Carolina joins at least a dozen states that have opened vaccination eligibility to those 16 and over. The vaccine has not been approved for teens and children under 16.
As of this week, more than 1.1 million in South Carolina, or about 27% of the total population, have gotten at least one vaccine dose, according to public health officials. Nearly 618,000, or about 15%, have been fully vaccinated.
In January, the governor said he was frustrated by what he characterized as a slow vaccine rollout. The Republican governor credited former President Donald Trump’s administration with the vaccines’ speedy development, but bemoaned “bottlenecks” that he said were hindering dissemination to those in the first priority group, including health care workers.
Since then, vaccines have become much more widely available in the state, and across the nation. Earlier this month, South Carolina began opening up appointments to those age 55 and up, as well as those with certain health conditions or with jobs that require them to report to work in-person.
Vaccinating teachers has also been a priority in South Carolina, as McMaster and others have held fast to a commitment to returning students to classrooms for full-time, in-person instruction, instead of the mix of in-person and virtual learning many districts have adopted.
This week, some districts called off school for several days at a time to allow educators to get their shots. Earlier this year, legislators debated pushing teachers to the front of the vaccination line, in order to more swiftly resume in-person classroom instruction, but that was scrapped in favor of adding teachers to groups already eligible.
The broad vaccination move comes as South Carolina continues to lift restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. McMaster never implemented a comprehensive statewide mask mandate, but he did order piecemeal restrictions, including mask-wearing in restaurants and some government office buildings. He lifted those orders earlier this month, leaving it up to state administrative officials and restaurant operators to develop their own guidelines.
Last month, the governor lifted bans on late-night alcohol sales and gatherings of more than 250 people. He encouraged people “to make responsible decisions” but said he believed “these targeted and limited safety measures are no longer necessary.” At the time, state epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell warned that if people perceive the virus as no longer a threat, they could stop following public health guidelines and drive cases up again.
“Today, about a year after the COVID-19 crisis began, we are now able to offer three very safe and effective vaccines to all South Carolina residents over the age of 16 - another step on our path to take control of COVID-19 instead of it controlling us and getting back to normal,” Dr. Edward Simmer, director of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Friday. ___
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.
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