Horry County is joining the rest of the country in pushing toward herd immunity from COVID-19 as vaccination efforts continue, but parts of the county and certain demographics are lagging behind in vaccinations.
Rural parts of Horry County fall much lower in vaccination rates than the coastal cities, according to a Sun News analysis of ZIP code-level data from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. ZIP codes that cover areas like Green Sea, Aynor and Bucksport have seen barely 20% of their residents vaccinated while certain areas of Myrtle Beach, Little River and North Myrtle Beach are passing 50% of their residents getting the vaccine. ZIP code data by age isn’t readily available from the U.S. Census Bureau, and only people 16 and older are eligible for the vaccine in South Carolina.
So far in the pandemic, 28,540 cases have been confirmed in Horry County and 439 people have died of COVID-19, according to DHEC. In the last week, 270 new cases were recorded in the county as 123,630 people have now gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.
Could the different rates delay herd immunity in Horry County?
Effectively and quickly disseminating vaccines in rural areas has been a topic of discussion since vaccinations against COVID-19 began in December, starting with healthcare workers and seniors before progressing to all adults.
The difference in vaccination rates across the county raise questions about when the area will truly reach herd immunity, or the number of people protected against COVID-19 necessary to prevent spread. The percentage of immunized people needed to reach herd immunity varies by disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
“We need to think about herd immunity as a community effort,” DHEC said in a statement to The Sun News. “If rural areas lag in vaccinations, we will continue to innovate finding ways to make vaccine access easier, and address vaccine hesitancy with information and outreach through trusted sources.”
People living in rural areas, while facing specific obstacles to getting a vaccine, are also at higher risk of getting severely ill if they contract COVID-19 because they have higher rates of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, according to the CDC. Rural residents are also less likely to have health insurance and internet access, which can be another barrier to scheduling a vaccine appointment.
Without a bustling urban center, rural residents are likely further from an abundance of vaccine sites than their neighbors in the coastal cities. According to DHEC’s vaccine locator, dozens of vaccine sites dot the coast, where most people in the county live, but moving further west, options grow fewer and farther between.
In the entire part of the county west of Conway, only 12 vaccine sites are available.
Hospital administrators and other vaccine providers have also urged patience and flexibility when scheduling a vaccine appointment, a luxury many working people don’t have.
Vaccine clinics packed in rural areas, some residents hesitate
But even with certain obstacles, rural residents are enthusiastic about the vaccine process, aside from a small portion who are choosing not to get vaccinated, according to local leaders.
“I would certainly want anyone that wants to be vaccinated to be vaccinated at the time they want,” said Danny Hardee, an Horry County Council member who represents part of rural Horry County. “For a lot of people out in the rural area, they talk about, ‘I’m not going to get the vaccination. I don’t want the vaccination.”
Despite the hesitancy among some residents, each vaccine clinic at McLeod Health in Loris has been filled and most people who are eligible are eager to get their vaccine.
“We’ve vaccinated everybody that has shown up at our clinics at McLeod Hospital in Loris,” said Todd Harrelson, mayor of Loris. “Every single one of them has been filled and we’ve had great turnout.
Public health experts and government officials in South Carolina have pushed for a more equitable plan for allocating vaccine doses, since the initial process gave more doses to the most populated counties. Horry County benefitted from that plan, but more rural counties of the state weren’t so lucky.
Vaccination rate varies greatly by race in Horry County
The divide between rural and urban areas of the county isn’t the only discrepancy in Horry County’s vaccine rollout. The vaccination breakdown by race shows a wide difference between white residents getting the vaccine and people of color who have been inoculated, a trend that has held up statewide.
Nearly 80% of Horry County’s population is white, according to demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and almost 90% of vaccine doses administered in the county have been in white residents, according to DHEC figures.
While around a third of eligible white residents in Horry County have at least started the vaccine process, only 16.1% of Black residents and 14.6% of Latino residents who are eligible have gotten a dose of the vaccine. In the Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and Native American and Alaska Native population, 22% of eligible people have gotten the vaccine.
Throughout the vaccine allocation so far, leaders have grappled with how to best reach all communities. South Carolina recently received federal funding to aid the vaccine effort specifically in minority communities, including money intended for more outreach and hiring bilingual staff to assist spreading important vaccine information to people who speak limited English.
The federal funding South Carolina received will target different communities, but county specifics aren’t yet available, according to DHEC, so it’s difficult to know if any new initiatives will impact Horry County directly.
To find a vaccine provider near you, visit https://vaxlocator.dhec.sc.gov/. Those without internet access can call 1-866-365-8110 for help making an appointment.