June 12, 2024


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South Carolina giving up on some contact tracing efforts

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s health department says it is giving up on trying to contact trace each individual coronavirus case in the state.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control said Thursday that it was switching from a “containment” to a “mitigation” approach. That means contact tracers will focus on household contacts exposed to the virus in the past six days and people in places where a lot of spread is possible.

People should no longer expect to get a call from contact tracers if they are exposed to a case, the department said.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell warned in July, during the state’s last spike, that tracing the contacts of everyone infected would be virtually impossible after newly diagnosed cases top 1,000 a day, a milestone long surpassed in the state.

Earlier Thursday, the agency said it would now allow medical students, retired nurses and other qualified professionals to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to make sure the state has enough people trained to administer the shots once the vaccine becomes more widely available.

The state is currently receiving about 64,000 doses from the federal government weekly, officials said. The limited number of available doses has frustrated South Carolinians as the state opened up vaccine access to those 70 and older this week, leading to a rush for shots. Some hospitals ran out of vaccine spots for seniors just hours after they opened up appointments.

Vaccine sites and the state health department were slammed with thousands of calls as those clamoring to get vaccinated clogged phone lines and slowed websites Wednesday.

The health department said Thursday that its hotline, which received 5,000 calls the day before, was “fully functional” after increasing the number of call center operators.

“However, we do expect there to be some wait time still due to continued high call volume,” the agency said in an email.

Hospitals have administered the vast majority of the state’s vaccine doses in early weeks, in part because they have the infrastructure required to maintain the ultracold temperatures needed to store the Pfizer vaccine. They’ve pleaded with people to remain patient as the state onboards more vaccine providers and gets more shipments.

Francis Clark said she has tried repeatedly to schedule an appointment for her 81-year-old mother, who lives alone outside Florence and doesn’t have internet access. But the local hospital had no openings Wednesday, Clark said, and the other vaccination sites are too far away.

“My mom can’t drive to Charleston,” Clark said. “She’s too old.”

And some health care workers, prioritized in the first phase of the vaccine plan, are still struggling to get access. Christi Brady, a pediatric home health nurse in Anderson, said she reached out to the state health department and the local hospital multiple times last week before being told she couldn’t get the vaccine because she wasn’t affiliated with the hospital — a misunderstanding that took several days to clear up.

By the time Brady managed to get her own employer to request a vaccine appointment for her, she had been exposed to the virus, she added.

“I felt like there was ample time for government officials to put something in place,” Brady said.

South Carolina has 924 sites enrolled in the federal program to administer the vaccine. Of those, 286 are activated, according to the health department. But only 29 of 162 listed vaccination sites were accepting appointments as of Thursday afternoon, according to an online map provided by the health agency.

On Wednesday evening, the state reported it had administered 121,819 of the 313,100 doses it had received, with another 119,105 appointments lined up.

As in many other states, South Carolina’s winter surge has outpaced its previous spikes and strained hospitals to capacity, but the extent of the virus’s toll hasn’t been clear in recent days because of missing data.

The agency reported more than 4,800 new confirmed cases and 18 additional deaths Thursday. But for the past four days, the agency’s case numbers have come with a caveat: DHEC says it is experiencing an “internal systems issue” and will update data on its dashboard to reflect cases missing from those daily numbers once resolved.


Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.


Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.