MUSC COVID tracking expert: ‘I think we’re going to see a big surge coming up’

January 05, 2021
Illustration of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Illustration of the coronavirus via Pixabay.

As the Charleston area deals with an almost 50% increase in COVID-19 cases over the past week, the leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID tracking team is warning of a challenging time ahead.

“I think we're going to see a big surge coming up,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. “South Carolina is starting to light up. The numbers here aren’t as bad as they are in a lot of other places, but the growth rate is not looking good.”

Sweat, who directs the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project, points to three factors that could drive a new winter surge.

First, while the holidays were far from normal, people did travel and get together with family and friends from outside of their households. “I think people get infected in their networks, visiting people over holidays. And then there's sort of a second wave that happens before people catch on. Those people then infect other people, on and on, until people start realizing there's a problem. And that takes several weeks.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Second, cooler weather has pushed people inside, where the coronavirus can spread more easily. 

And third, COVID-19 is mutating. One of its variants is so contagious that it just triggered a new lockdown in England. That variant has been found in at least four states in the U.S. South Africa is dealing with a variant that appears to be a speedy spreader, too.

“Those highly contagious variants are clearly out there, probably in a pretty big way. That’s incredibly worrying,” Sweat said.

If they show up in South Carolina — or if they’re already here, undetected — that could make a lot more people sick. And that could contribute to another problem: an overwhelmed health care system.

We’re seeing what that looks like in California. In Los Angeles County, the coronavirus is so widespread that emergency responders are having to limit the use of supplemental oxygen and stop taking people who can’t be resuscitated to hospitals.

So Sweat’s team is keeping a close eye on hospital capacity in South Carolina. The Charleston area still has plenty of hospital beds available, including beds in the intensive care unit. But Sweat is concerned about the Florence and Lancaster areas, which his team also tracks because MUSC Health has hospitals in those areas.

“Florence has a problem,” Sweat said. “The numbers have really gone up in the past week. Lancaster is even worse.”

But both areas still have space — for now. 

Sweat encourages everyone to do what they can to slow the virus’ spread. “We’re going to have to be really strict over the next couple of months, I think.”

Wear masks, he said. Minimize contact with people outside of your household. Stay outdoors when you’re around other people as much as possible.

And don’t forget, vaccines are arriving, Sweat said. “We need to be putting all efforts possible on vaccination and really steeling ourselves for being careful. We do have the power to do it. You can minimize your risk.”

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