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Vaccine skeptics dominate South Carolina pandemic preparation meeting as COVID-19 cases rise

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A meeting Tuesday of South Carolina lawmakers considering how to best counter future pandemics was dominated by vaccine skeptics pushing concerns about COVID-19 immunizations that are unaccepted by the greater medical community.

Members of the all-Republican panel seeking more independence from federal health regulators were receptive to speakers who sewed doubt about vaccine safety and efficacy, as well as distrust in the scientific establishment. Testimony began with an hourlong presentation from Aaron Siri, the managing partner at a New York law firm that 2021 tax filings show received over $3 million from an influential Texas-based group that campaigns against vaccine requirements.

“What I don’t want us to do is follow the regimented FDA, whatever the federal government tells us,” Republican state Sen. Billy Garrett told Dr. Edward Simmer, the director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Simmer, the final speaker and the only one who wore a mask, said the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, and is safe for most people.

The previously scheduled pandemic preparedness listening session convened just one day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved updated COVID-19 vaccines in an attempt to temper any surge this fall. Health officials are now treating the shot like the flu immunizations that many Americans have come to expect annually.

Legislators endorsed unproven treatments. Despite health experts' warnings that ivermectin can cause harmful side effects with little evidence that it helps fight COVID-19 infections, Garrett told one doctor that he took the decades-old parasite drug when he came down with the virus.

While the FDA has not approved the use of ivermectin to prevent COVID-19, Republican state Sen. Tom Corbin said “we all know now” that it works.

Simmer later testified that ivermectin does not work well.

Corbin, who chairs the six-person committee, wanted more information on the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines.

“If the scientists can proclaim that the vaccination is safe and effective, we can also proclaim that the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) is underreported,” said Corbin, referring to the national program co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA that monitors adverse reactions to vaccines.

The meeting also came amid an uptick in hospitalizations related to COVID-19 that is again prompting officials across the United States to consider preventative measures. The spike has been felt even more acutely in South Carolina. The state saw an 18 percent increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions over the last week, according to CDC data.

Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster reaffirmed his opposition to school closures and mask mandates in a post last week on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“We’re not going to do a lot of the foolish things that were done in other states that we limited to a great degree here in South Carolina,” McMaster said in a video uploaded to the social media platform.

South Carolina had the 10th highest COVID-19 mortality rate adjusted by age in 2021, according to CDC data.

McMaster has touted the conservative state's early pandemic response that included quick business reopenings and few shutdowns. In May 2021, McMaster banned state and local governments from requiring proof of vaccination to access public buildings and facilities.

A 2021 budget proviso prohibited South Carolina school districts from using appropriated funds “to require that its students and/or employees wear a face mask at any of its education facilities.”

Past Department of Health and Environmental Control recommendations for masking among schoolchildren were criticized by other speakers who testified before the Tuesday panel.

Contrary to medical experts’ widespread guidance, Dr. Denice Hilty told lawmakers “the body of evidence suggests that masks do not support a public health benefit in viral health transmission and protecting people from viruses.” Hilty is a chiropractor who said she has done most of her work in New York City.

The CDC has advised wearing masks to prevent people who are infected from spreading the coronavirus. A study released March 2021 by the CDC found that mask mandates were associated with reduced coronavirus transmission.

Republican state Rep. Sylleste Davis told Hilty that her testimony would be helpful as lawmakers determine “next steps legislatively.”

Simmer later said N95 masks like the one he wore Tuesday help prevent the spread of the disease.

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Pollard 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.