Low COVID growth rate in latest Tri-county update - but high risk ahead

November 16, 2020
Surgical mask on a black background surrounded by autumn leaves
Masks will mingle with fall's biggest holiday celebration, Thanksgiving, as people try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at gatherings. Photo illustration by Adam Niescioruk via Unsplash

The Tri-county area’s COVID-19 growth rate is relatively low as we head into a high-risk period.  

In fact, the latest update from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Team shows the number of reported infections in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties was 588 in the most recent week it tracked. The week before, it was 601. (Look for updates each Thursday.)

But don’t plan a Thanksgiving toast about that just yet, says the tracking project’s leader. “I can’t tell you how strongly I worry about the holidays,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

“You tend to focus on what's around you, and we are really doing fairly well here. But you know, the whole country was doing relatively well until the cold weather started.”

National reports bear that out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker showed more than 1 million cases during the week that ended Nov. 15. 

“We face the risk of this national problem continuing to leak into our state,” Sweat said, pointing to a rise in cases in cooler parts of South Carolina.

Why might cooling weather cause COVID to spread? Sweat said social distancing doesn’t work as well in an enclosed space, and lower humidity becomes a problem, too. “Dry air seems to facilitate transmission of the virus – it makes it more stable. In the winter, people run heaters, which keeps the air dryer.”

Sweat discourages people from getting together with friends and family outside of their immediate circle. But if they do, he encourages them to try to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. He recommends that people check out the CDC’s guidelines for holiday celebrations, which include:

  • Checking to see how high the spread of COVID-19 is at their destinations, if they’re traveling. Factor that into decision-making.
  • Keeping the time spent around others to a minimum. Shorter events are less risky than longer ones.
  • Wearing a mask, even when you’re with family, if you aren’t normally around them.
  • Celebrating outside when possible.
  • Opening windows and doors to let more air circulate if you can.
  • Avoiding singing or talking loudly.
  • Washing your hands often and keeping hand sanitizer at the ready.

Sweat said it’s also a good idea to get tested for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving and after. The Medical University of South Carolina, where Sweat directs the Center for Global Health, is hosting holiday testing events to try to get as many people as possible tested before they mingle with others. MUSC Health also has free COVID-19 mobile testing sites around the state, and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control offers free testing, too.

Sweat was thrilled to see news over the past several days about the coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna that appear to be highly effective. “As Dr. Anthony Fauci said, the cavalry is coming — we have vaccines on the way. But it’s not going to come overnight.”

He warned against what he called risk optimism. “There is some concern that people will have this optimism about the positive vaccine news that will get in the way of them protecting themselves and their families in the interim. This virus can spread like wildfire.”

Sweat said the Tri-county area might be able to avoid a surge if people stick with experts’ recommendations. “I've been reading some of the reports that say labs like Quest and LabCorp right now have really good turnaround times on their testing. But they're worried they're going to start having much longer turnaround times because they're getting to capacity. So many people are being tested in the hot spots.”

Sweat said people in the Lowcountry have been relatively lucky – so far. “It's scary to watch this ready to spill in our direction, you know? People need to come up with a plan and stick with it through the end of the pandemic.”

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