Vaccine arrives as state sees over 100% increase in COVID cases in two-week period

December 15, 2020
Man wearing Santa hat holding mask in front of his face.
Experts worry about a COVID-dominated December as case numbers climb in South Carolina. Photo illustration via Unsplash

When South Carolina’s COVID cases topped 3,000 three days in a row, smashing the previous record, global health expert Michael Sweat, Ph.D., wasn’t surprised. “Honestly, I was expecting it. I was watching it every day, wondering when it was going to happen.”

And looking ahead to late December holiday celebrations, Sweat sees the potential for even higher numbers. “It could kind of put this on steroids,” he said, referring to a graph showing the current statewide surge.

But Sweat, who directs the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina, pointed to a silver lining in the COVID cloud. Vaccines are arriving. “It’s good, and we should all feel good.”

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported that the state expects to get almost 43,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this week, and some health care facilities are getting vaccines directly from the federal government. 

At MUSC Health, doctors, nurses and other care team members who work directly with patients start getting vaccinated today as part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Phase 1a of the vaccine rollout

But most people won’t get vaccinated right away. Spring is more like it, according to the federal government.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

So we need to stick with COVID precautions for a little while longer. “What was it Alan Greenspan used to say?” Sweat said, referring to the former Federal Reserve chairman. “Irrational exuberance? You don’t want that to happen.”

He recommends rational caution instead. “We don’t want people to be overly optimistic. They need to be careful.”

That’s important heading into the holidays. “Christmas is a long break. It’s sort of Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s – the way it falls during the week, it hits on a Friday,” Sweat said. 

“I think we’re going to have at least two weeks of people getting together. Schools are letting out. College students are going home. People are traveling. All the movement of people is carrying the virus around. That has clearly been shown to lead to higher sustained levels.”

But Sweat also put South Carolina’s COVID situation in perspective. “We’ve seen a 104% increase in cases over two weeks, statewide. That’s bad. But we should feel a little lucky because even though it’s going up, it’s way lower than most of the country. As these increases happen, they’re happening from a lower number.”

Sweat noted that the COVID caseload is much heavier in some parts of the state than others. “In Greenville County, it’s been like a rocket taking off. Pickens is another one, right next door – they’ve seen massive increases. And Florence, too – they were pretty low, and then they just took off.”

The COVID case rate in the southern part of the state is much lower, he said. “The $99 question is why. If I had to put my money on it, I think it’s a combination of weather and humidity.”

Sweat also noted nuances along the South Carolina coast. “There are some differences across counties. Berkeley seems to be doing worse than Charleston County, by a tad. Dorchester County goes back and forth.”

Sweat is familiar with those differences through his work leading the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project. It provides daily updates on the Tri-county area’s case rate and weekly big-picture assessments. Once the government begins releasing more specific vaccine data, the project will begin tracking that, too.

In the meantime, Sweat worries about what could happen next as 2020 draws to a close. “It’s sort of like shaking a snow globe. You stir people up and move them all around.”