COVID numbers plateau as threat of viral variant looms

January 25, 2021
Many points to pictures on a board of COVID during a presentation.
Photo illustration of the COVID-19 mutations that worry health experts. One could become the dominant strain in the U.S. soon, they warn. Image from Pixabay

As COVID-19 case numbers plateau in the Charleston area, the leader of the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project warns that faster-spreading variants are likely to cause new problems.

“Reinforce your prevention behaviors,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. “Now is the time to worry.”

Those behaviors include wearing a mask, staying at least six feet away from people who don’t live with you and avoiding crowds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that a variant first seen in the United Kingdom could become the dominant strain in the United States as soon as March, causing a crush of new cases.

“I would like to be optimistic, but I think it's likely that we will not evade it. It's out there, and it spreads very quickly by definition,” Sweat said. “It’s been detected in more than 20 states.”

Different variants have cropped up in other countries, including South Africa. “Mutations are occurring spontaneously in multiple locations independently. So the virus is very good at mutating,” Sweat said. “It’s just natural selection. It happens with all viruses.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Some of those mutations may not just help the virus spread more quickly, Sweat said — they may also make it more dangerous. “One of the lead epidemiologists on the White House task force came out today and said he's looked at the data on the U.K. variant, and they think it’s more lethal than the first version of the coronavirus. That's not a good thing.”

But in the meantime, the Tri-county area has a few things going for it. As the epidemiology team has noted, the growth rate of COVID-19 has slowed to just a half of one percent in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined. 

There were about 3,700 cases in the most recent week it tracked, compared to about 4,800 cases the previous week. “We are now seeing the number of cases per day slowing decreasing, but from a high level, so there are still many people infected in the community,” Sweat said.

And the number of hospitals beds in use hasn’t spiked as some feared, although Sweat said there is some concern about an increase in the severity of the illness in people hospitalized with COVID-19. 

Also, some people are getting vaccinated, including health care providers who work close to patients, people age 70 and up and parents with children who are chronically ill or have other special needs. New vaccine trials are getting underway at the Medical University of South Carolina and across the country, which may lead to a much-needed increase in the vaccine supply.

It is likely that those vaccines protect people against the emerging variants, but there are some concerns. Vaccine makers are studying that and looking for ways to boost their effectiveness as needed.

When it comes to people who have actually had COVID-19 in its earlier form, Sweat said research suggests that a mutated version of the COVID-19 virus found in South Africa may be able to infect them again. “Like flu, year to year it might change so much that your body doesn’t recognize it.”

Bottom line: it’s no time to let your guard down, Sweat said. “This is not the time to push the limits.”

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