McMaster directs health officials to prohibit door-to-door COVID vaccine efforts in SC

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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Friday directed state health officials to prohibit any unsolicited door-to-door COVID-19 vaccination efforts, arguing that showing up unannounced at individuals’ homes and “pressuring” them to get inoculated was bad policy and could lead to “disastrous public safety consequences.”

“The prospect of government vaccination teams showing up unannounced or unrequested at the door of ‘targeted’ homeowners or on their property will further deteriorate the public’s trust and could lead to potentially disastrous public safety consequences,” McMaster wrote in a letter to state Department of Health and Environmental Control board Chairman Mark Elam.

The governor’s request that the board of South Carolina’s health agency issue a mandate prohibiting agency leadership and state and local health-care organizations from going house-to-house to promote vaccinations comes days after President Joe Biden called for a national door-to-door vaccine push as nationwide inoculation rates dwindle.

In his letter to Elam, McMaster invoked Biden’s proposal, calling it bad policy and saying that South Carolinians already had been provided access to all available information about the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as access to the vaccine itself.

“A South Carolinian’s decision to get vaccinated is a personal one for them to make and not the government’s,” McMaster wrote. “Enticing, coercing, intimidating, mandating, or pressuring anyone to take the vaccine is a bad policy which will deteriorate the public’s trust and confidence in the State’s vaccination efforts.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday addressed McMaster’s pushback against Biden’s door-to-door vaccination initiative, saying he and other Republican governors’ mischaracterization of the president’s vaccine push was a “disservice to the country” and the people who may lose their lives to COVID-19.

“The failure to provide accurate public health information, including the efficacy of vaccines and the accessibility of them to people across the country, including South Carolina, is literally killing people,” she said. “So maybe they should consider that.”

Psaki said community vaccination outreach efforts like the White House is pushing already have had an impact in states with low vaccination rates, like South Carolina, and would continue regardless of Republican opposition.

“This is not federal employees going door-to-door,” she said. “This is grassroots volunteers, this is members of the clergy, these are volunteers who believe that people across the country, especially in low vaccinated areas, should have accurate information, should have information about where they can get vaccinated, where they can save their own lives and their neighbors’ lives and their family members’ lives.”

McMaster responded to Psaki on Twitter, where a clip of her criticizing South Carolina’s coronavirus response was circulating widely, by lashing out at the president’s chief medical advisor.

“Unfortunately, @PressSec, we have seen that public health information and recommendations coming from Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and this administration are a lot like the weather in South Carolina,” the governor tweeted. “Wait a bit and it will change completely.”

More pushback at home

As news of McMaster’s letter to DHEC spread Friday, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, pushed back against the governor’s directive and told health officials to ignore it.

“As a member of Medical Affairs, I support @POTUS efforts to increase the vaccinations,” Kimpson tweeted. “ I instruct @scdhec to ignore @henrymcmaster’s directive as we ignored his vetoes.”

In a statement Friday afternoon, DHEC Director Edward Simmer said the agency had not and would not conduct unsolicited door-to-door visits as part of its vaccination outreach efforts.

The agency does provide in-home vaccinations to homebound residents, he said, but only at the vaccine recipients’ request.

Simmer strongly encouraged South Carolinians to get COVID-19 shots and said vaccination was “our best hope” for ending the pandemic, but noted that doing so is a personal choice.

A DHEC spokesman did not immediately say whether the agency planned to formally adopt McMaster’s directive or what impact it believed doing so would have on South Carolina’s flagging vaccination rates.

The state already has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with just 43% of eligible residents fully vaccinated, and health officials have been sounding the alarm that a coronavirus outbreak could be on the horizon if more people don’t start rolling up their sleeves.

Earlier this week, DHEC released the preliminary results of a statewide analysis that found more than 94% of new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in unvaccinated people, and that no one who had been fully vaccinated had died of coronavirus complications over the two-week period the agency sampled.

“The overwhelming majority of people who are continuing to get COVID-19 and who are getting hospitalized and dying from this disease are those who are not fully vaccinated,” assistant state epidemiologist Jane Kelly said Wednesday. “I can’t think of a more impactful point to make that would encourage someone who hasn’t yet received their shots to do so right away.”

While DHEC said it does not engage in any door-to-door vaccine promotion efforts, either directly or indirectly, community groups in the state have used targeted door-knocking as a strategy to increase uptake since the early days of the vaccine rollout.

Earlier this year, groups of volunteers walked the streets in some of Columbia’s historically underserved neighborhoods knocking on doors to encourage vaccinations and assist elderly residents with scheduling appointments.

The volunteer group, whose members called themselves the Vaccine Chasers, partnered with Providence Health to book vaccination appointments for more than 1,000 Columbia residents over a roughly six-week span with encouragement from city officials.

If DHEC were to adopt the governor’s directive outlawing door-to-door vaccination drives, such an arrangement would be prohibited due to Providence’s involvement, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.

Symmes said Friday that while the governor has no authority over private volunteer efforts to promote vaccination, he does not support state or local health care providers getting involved in door-knocking campaigns.

The governor takes no issue with DHEC or state and local health organizations providing ample access to the vaccine, including through mobile health clinics at parks or community centers, but draws the line at knocking on residents’ doors, Symmes said.

The governor’s opposition to door-knocking for vaccinations comes on the heels of statements by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who on Wednesday tweeted that sending federal government workers door-to-door to compel vaccinations would not be welcome in Missouri. Both McMaster and Parson are Republicans.