New SC health department director to prioritize building confidence in COVID vaccine

New SC health department director to prioritize building confidence in COVID vaccine
The South Carolina Senate confirmed Dr. Edward Simmer Thursday morning to be the next director of the state's Department of Health Environmental Control in a 40-1 vote. (Source: DHEC)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - On his first day as the leader of the state’s health department, Dr. Edward Simmer knows he faces big challenges with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

New data shows more than 68 percent of South Carolinians want the COVID vaccine, but that number drops by as much as 20 points in some rural areas.

The newly-confirmed director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control wants to change that.

Simmer said Friday he wants to prioritize confidence in the vaccine. Simmer said there is a gap not only in knowledge about the vaccine but in its availability as well. So one of his first instructions to DHEC staff was to begin work to tackle those disparities.

For that, he says working with those communities is key.

“I’ve asked our staff to make that number one priority moving forward, is making those relationships happen, and getting to vaccine to those communities,” he said.

DHEC will do that, Simmer said, by utilizing the resources that are already in place.

“Identify community partners who can help us organize vaccination events,” he said. “Work with local community leaders that can be local elected officials but also informal leaders like, you know, Neighborhood Association presidents and spiritual leaders to identify groups that are eligible for the vaccine and want to receive it.”

And then, he says, DHEC needs to take the vaccine to them, “rather than asking them to come to us. "

Simmer says the agency is still working on a new online system that should simply the vaccine sign-up process. He said while it has taken a bit longer to set up, he hopes it should come within a week.

People can also call the DHEC COVID-19 Information Line at 1-866-365-8110 to schedule their appointments if they are eligible. DHEC now has 300 people staffing the vaccine line.

Simmer takes over the agency, becoming the first physician to lead the agency in four decades, also aware of concerns over who should be eligible for the vaccine when.

Teacher groups have advocated making teachers eligible for the vaccine now.

Simmer says he is in favor of potentially moving teachers and school staffers up in Phase 1B. But he says the challenge is that opening vaccines to them too soon could cause a shortage of supply.

“We have to make some choices that we prioritize and try to identify the highest-risk populations,” he said. “We know that the elderly are at high risk. And so I think it makes sense to prioritize them higher.”

Teachers are set to be eligible when the next vaccine phase, Phase 1B, opens up. There is no set date yet for when that will happen.

Simmer said he is optimistic that teachers will be able to receive the vaccine before the end of the school year, but he would not make promises.

“I am hopeful that we’ll be able to have a lot more people vaccinated by May including teachers and support,” he said. “But I don’t want to promise something I don’t know for sure because we just don’t know how much vaccine we’ll get between now and then.”

Johnson & Johnson has asked federal regulators to green-light its vaccine, the world’s first single-dose COVID-19 vaccine, an easier-to-use option that could boost supplies. That, Simmer said, would help in getting more South Carolinians vaccinated in an accelerated pace.

Earlier on Friday, the state’s Department of Education said all of the state’s school districts are now either ready with finalized teacher vaccine plans or are working on finalizing them.

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