'Things are looking rosy' in update from COVID epidemiology team

February 09, 2021
Illustration of coronavirus by Dr. StClaire from Pixabay
Illustration of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 via Pixabay.

All three areas of South Carolina tracked by the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project are seeing decreases in COVID-19 cases. 

“We're at a very high rate, but they're going in the right direction, and it's been consistent for several weeks,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and director of the MUSC Center for Global Health, leads the COVID tracking project.

His team analyzes data and trends in the Charleston, Florence and Lancaster areas — all places where MUSC Health has hospitals. Charleston has seen its growth rate drop 8% over the previous week. Florence has seen a whopping 32% decrease in COVID cases. And Lancaster is down 15%.

“Things are looking pretty rosy for now,” Sweat said, noting the end of the holiday surge that led to spikes in January.

More key indicators are going green in the team’s tracking updates too, meaning things are looking good — although that varies by area. But a few findings that are a little less rosy jump out. 

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

One, all three areas are seeing new clusters of COVID-19 cases, mostly in nursing homes. 

Two, despite the decrease in Lancaster’s growth rate, its intensive care unit beds are close to capacity. “They had these peaks in positive tests, and it takes several weeks until people are sick enough to need to be in the hospital. That’s what we’re seeing now,” Sweat said. “That’s put them in the red zone. But I would add that Lancaster is a very small hospital so they don’t have many beds. They work closely with Florence to transfer patients when needed.”

Three, the tracking team is worried about the possible impact of variants of the coronavirus that causes the illness COVID-19. “It is like a freight train potentially coming at us,” Sweat said. “I’ve read up on this very extensively. It’s serious.”

The strain that originated in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7, worries him the most. “A recent study suggests that just like the CDC predicted, probably in March or April, we're going to see that be the predominant strain in the U.S. It’s probably 30 to 50% more contagious.”

Sweat cited another country’s experience to show why that’s so troubling. “They sequence every single case in Denmark. Once it got there, it just raced through the community. Within weeks it was the number one strain and it's creating a lot of problems. So that's the freight train. I think we could see a real increase in cases if it hits hard here.”

That makes it all the more important to vaccinate people quickly, Sweat said. “The higher the transmission rate, the more mutations you'll see. So if you can tamp all that down, you'll also tamp down the mutation of the virus. You also need to ramp up prevention efforts - double mask, avoid groups, all those things.”

Scientists are working on boosters to try to ensure that there are vaccines that will work against all of the emerging variants, including the mutations first found in South Africa and Brazil.

Looking ahead, Sweat and his tracking team are waiting for answers to some questions on a lot of people’s minds. For example, is it safe for people who have been vaccinated to visit grandkids and friends without any pandemic precautions? For now, no, Sweat said. The science about whether they can still spread the virus isn’t settled. 

Another question: Will we able to get to herd immunity? That’s a tricky one, Sweat said. “I have some doubts now based on a lot of people’s reticence to get the vaccine. We'll see how that may affect things.”

Finally, will countries around the world work together to get everyone vaccinated? “We live in a global community. This spread from overseas and it spread rapidly. It's really critical that we ramp up getting everybody in the world vaccinated because if we don't, and you let a country like Brazil burn, those mutations will be popping out left and right.”

Despite questions and concerns, Sweat sees positive signs. “I think we're going to solve this crisis because they've built up the vaccine capacity. They built this huge capacity to pump these vaccines out in an incredibly short time. They can start tweaking the vaccine formulas to incorporate the variants. We could be in a situation going forward similar to the flu shot, where once or twice a year, you may need to get a booster shot.”

His team will keep tracking COVID-19 along the way, giving daily updates on growth rate and weekly big picture assessments. They’re glad to have good news to report these days, Sweat said. “The trajectory for the growth rate in the three areas we track is straight down.”

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