Dottie’s set up an outdoor vaccine station at its James Island pharmacy | Photo by Ruta Smith

Get the Stick

More than 2.7 million South Carolinians found themselves medically eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine last week, only to find that getting an appointment for that shot in the arm has proven difficult.

South Carolina entered phase 1B of its vaccine distribution on March 8, as thousands of vaccine doses bound for the Palmetto State meant some healing was on the way after the year-long pandemic. But, the bumpy rollout that followed boils down to supply, medical professionals say. 

“We’ve been anxiously awaiting the vaccine for months,” said Dottie’s Pharmacy co-owner Scott Farfone. “And, we didn’t get allotted enough, but there’s a nationwide shortage. There’s only so much to go around.”

Dottie’s reached maximum registration for its 300 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two days before the eligibility rules were set to change. Co-owner Dottie Farfone said she doesn’t think they will be getting any more either, due to the short supply and other issues.

“The major caveat right now is that we are working through a waiting list from phase 1A of about 25,000 people,” said Heather Woolwine, public affairs director at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “So other than a few thousand phase 1B doses for teachers that we did last week in partnership with Charleston County School District, we are not scheduling new phase 1B patients at this time.”

The weight of the challenges doesn’t just fall on those trying to get their vaccines.

“The toughest thing is having to tell people we don’t have any more,” Scott Farfone said. “It’s just really frustrating to turn people away and tell them we don’t have any vaccines. People are anxious. Some understand, and some are angry, and, they show that. But, we all just have to be patient. It’s been just as frustrating for us as health providers.”

Dottie’s isn’t the only local pharmacy that’s run into shortage-caused problems.

“It’s certainly not as easy as we would like,” said Delta Pharmacy pharmacist Jennifer Ogburn. “We are trying to utilize an online scheduling system and release appointments as we know we have available vaccines. Those appointments fill up within an hour.” 

Short supply hasn’t been the only hurdle to jump over for local distribution. Scheduling and online challenges have plagued those giving the stick since the initial rollout. And when it comes to smaller distribution sites, limited staffing is taken into consideration just as much as limited supply.

“We are trying not to overwork our staff, obviously,” Ogburn said. “This is an additional burden on top of our normal activities and volume. We are trying to do a reasonable amount, and it’s been a great amount so far, but we can’t overwork ourselves.”

For smaller pharmacies or care providers, it’s simply a matter of space. 

“We aren’t in a large facility like a hospital where we can spread people out,” Ogburn said. “We have a couple who just received the vaccine, and now, they have to wait 15 minutes, so we can only schedule people every 15 minutes or so at the earliest.”

Dottie’s hasn’t had the same software troubles that pharmacy chains like Walgreens have been reporting. 

“We actually purchased a state-of-the-art scheduling system,” Dottie Farfone said. “We’ve been doing COVID testing since September using online platforms. We knew we wanted something that was going to be super easy, and after doing it this week, we could probably do triple the volume because we’ve gotten it down so quickly.”

Despite the rocky start, providers have said being able to give the vaccine has been a rewarding process. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the joy on people’s faces after they get the vaccine,” Scott Farfone said.