As key COVID indicator goes from green to red, MUSC epidemiology team looks ahead to holidays

October 29, 2020
Nurse Destiny Smeltzer demonstrates how to give a COVID-19 test with Cassandra Masters.
Nurse Destiny Smeltzer demonstrates how to give a COVID-19 test outside the MUSC Health West Ashley Medical Pavilion. Photo by Sarah Pack

The latest update from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows a key indicator has gone from green to red for the Tri-county area. The indicator, “sustained reduction in new cases,” notes that there has been an increase in the number of COVID cases for each of the past two weeks in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.

But Michael Sweat, Ph.D., the project’s leader, said the number of cases is still relatively low. “A few weeks ago, we were at six cases per day for every 100,000 people. Then it went to seven to nine to 10 and now it’s up to 12.”

For comparison, COVID hotspots in the U.S. are seeing much higher numbers. “There are places in the upper Midwest where there are 240, 260 cases per 100,000.”

Sweat, who directs the Division of Global and Community Health at MUSC, said those hotspots tend to be in places where cooler weather has already set in. As the Lowcountry cools off and people spend more time indoors, Sweat worries the numbers could continue to rise in the Charleston area, too.

“These outbreaks happen so explosively that we can't even detect them for a week or two. It can really spread rapidly,” he said.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Case in point: North Carolina, which recently hit its highest case number since the start of the pandemic. “People shouldn't think this is just somewhere far away. It's not. The epidemic is changing. It's growing, and it's expanding. As it gets cooler, I just want people to be aware that we need to be careful.”

Sweat said a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed about 760 COVID hotspots to see how infections spread. “The overall trend that they saw, particularly in the Southeast, was young people get infected first in the population. They don't get that sick because they're younger. And then that slowly starts spreading to families and other contacts. And then, people a little bit older would start getting infected, then even older people. That’s when you start to see more deaths.”

He said continued social distancing and mask wearing can help keep COVID cases down. But Sweat knows that holiday parties and big family gatherings may be a temptation for people tired of pandemic precautions. 

“Fatigue is continuing to be an issue,” Sweat said. “It’s going to be very, very hard for people not to visit one another. I'd say if people want to get together, they could do it outside with distancing and wearing a mask.”

He also cautioned people not to bank on herd immunity. “We're nowhere close to herd immunity. For us to get to herd immunity naturally, without a vaccine, would lead to unacceptable mass deaths of people. We need to wait it out. There are so many positive signals on the vaccine front. If we could just wait a little longer through this difficult period, we will have saved a lot of lives and achieve what we wanted to achieve and feel good about it.”

The MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project is updated at least once a week. It uses data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Cuebiq and MUSC clinical data to analyze trends. Its goal is to help citizens and leaders understand how the coronavirus is affecting the community so they can make good decisions and prepare for what may lie ahead as the pandemic progresses.

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