Tri-county increase in COVID cases 'a seriously bad situation'

July 15, 2020
Graph showing growth of COVID-19 in Tri-county area
The number of cases in the Charleston area has soared.

While the July 15 update from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows the growth rate of COVID-19 has gone down in the Tri-county area, don’t let that fool you. It’s still dangerously high at 4.8%. And the prevalence, meaning how many people have COVID-19, has soared in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. It all adds up to what public health specialist Michael Sweat, Ph.D., calls “a seriously bad situation.”

“Right now, we have thousands of cases. I think this past week, in the Charleston area, 3,435 case were reported. That’s a lot. If that doubles in a couple of weeks, you’re going to end up with 7,000 cases. Another two weeks, you have 14,000, then 28,000. It’s still growing.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

The epidemiology intelligence project team, which Sweat leads, estimates there are more than 6,500 people actively sick with COVID-19 in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. The total number of infections since the outbreak began in March is estimated to be up to 76,663 for the Tri-county area. 

“We’re seeing 80 cases for every 100,000 people per day in the Charleston area. That a lot. It’s a seriously high number that needs to come down,” Sweat said. 

The epidemiology intelligence project launched at the Medical University of South Carolina earlier in the coronavirus pandemic to analyze trends, offer information that can help guide policy decisions and help the general public track the virus’ spread in the Tri-county area. Its online reports are usually updated each Wednesday.

The latest report gives Sweat plenty of cause for concern. “The number of cases is getting so large it’s making me nervous, because I think it affects three things: 

  • The ability of the hospitals to maintain enough space for patients.
  • The availability and speed of testing.
  • The ability to do contact tracing. 

“Those last two things, testing and contact tracing, are a critical part of keeping an epidemic under control and diminishing it. And when you get big numbers it starts to fall apart. That just leaves you with few options other than sort of draconian lockdowns.”

The epidemiology intelligence project’s July 15 report shows two of the three large area hospitals are in “yellow status” when it comes to having the ability to treat patients without having to use crisis standards. MUSC Health is not yet in that category.

The report also shows that for the moment, there is enough COVID-19 testing available. But the status of contact tracing is unclear – the team needs more information to decide.

Sweat, who in addition to his work with the epidemiology intelligence project directs the MUSC Center for Global Health and serves as a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, hopes the report helps people make good decisions. “I want people to realize their actions matter. Don’t just give up. But we are into a period here that’s significant. People need to know this is very, very serious.”

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