COVID case rate in Charleston area plunges, but expert warns of 'massive concern'

February 23, 2021
Graphs showing COVID cases down in Charleston county and an average test positivity rate of 8.4%.
A screen grab from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows the number of cases per day in the Charleston area, left, has gone down. The graph on the right shows the 7-day average test positivity rate in the Charleston area.

The blue arrow’s bend should make people feel anything but blue, says Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project. He’s talking about a graph illustrating the COVID case rate in the Charleston area, which has taken a sharp turn for the better. “The numbers are way down. Not only here, but all over the world, cases are declining rather quickly.”


His team’s latest update shows 34 cases per day for every 100,000 people in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined. The number of intensive care unit beds in use is 64%, meaning hospitals have plenty of room. And the infectiousness of the coronavirus, meaning the number of people an infected person is spreading the virus to, is hovering around one.


“There’s so much good news,” Sweat says. “Well over 12% of the population has been vaccinated in South Carolina. It's the age groups, in general, that are the most likely to end up in the hospital if they get infected. And Pfizer's now saying they're producing 50% more than they were before. They’re making promises to get hundreds of millions of doses out in the next couple of months. I think people ought to be very optimistic about getting access to the vaccine.”


Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Sweat says the vaccine isn’t the only thing driving down numbers. He thinks people are also doing a pretty good job when it comes to things like wearing masks and not getting too close to others outside of their household.


But Sweat did point out that South Carolina has a long way to go. It continues to rank as one of the worst states when it comes to cases per capita. That’s true of some other East Coast states, too, where progress against COVID-19 has been slower than in other parts of the country. It’s unclear why.


And within South Carolina, Sweat says the geographic distribution of COVID-19 has shifted. “For a long time, it was Pickens County and Greenville County and the Florence area that were really high. Now, there’s another pattern that seems to be emerging – around Columbia, to its west and east. We’re seeing waves.”


He’s also seeing something he calls shocking. “This is a massive concern,” Sweat says, referring to COVID variants showing up in South Carolina. On Feb. 17, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 21 cases of the variant B.1.351, better known as the South African variant, in the state – including five in the Lowcountry, 15 in the Pee Dee and one in the Midlands. 


Those are small numbers. But considering the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the South African variant had been detected in just 10 states as of Feb. 21, the South Carolina statistics are significant, Sweat says. 


“There have only been 22 cases of the South African variant identified in these 10 states, not including the new South Carolina cases. So the new cases basically double the count. It isn’t clear yet how many cases DHEC sequenced, so we don’t know what the percentage of cases involved the variant. But it's a serious worry. There’s concern that people who have had the earlier strain of COVID can be reinfected by B.1.351.”


For now, though, Sweat says hope about the pandemic should outweigh pessimism. “We should be cautiousWe're kind of in a brave new world, you know, of trying to keep a lid on the virus. And I think we will. It's just not going to happen overnight. I suspect here in the U.S., by summer, you're going to have great reason to be optimistic.”

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