South Carolina in 'holding pattern' as COVID cases blow up elsewhere

March 31, 2021
Graph showing a nine percent decrease in COVID cases in the Charleston area as of March 20.
Graph from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows the coronavirus' ups and downs in the Charleston area.

You see it just about everywhere these days: people behaving a lot more normally than during the height of the pandemic. There are fewer masks, more socializing and eating in restaurants — even the prospect of movie theaters reopening soon.

And the latest update from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project does show the COVID case rate is down another 9% in the Tri-county area this week.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

But project leader Michael Sweat, Ph.D., said this is no time to let down your guard. “I think we're in a holding pattern,” he said. “What's worrying is when you look beyond the Charleston area, there are really substantial increases in the Upstate. It's all around Greenville, Anderson, Spartanburg, Pickens — every county around them is seeing increases. That's driving up the state numbers. There was a 3% increase in cases over the past week in the state.”

And some other states are seeing much bigger increases. “All of a sudden, big blowups are happening. Michigan has seen a 52% increase in cases in the past week. Connecticut had a 44% increase, New Jersey an 11% increase and it’s going up in New York too. And they're at a high number. Much higher than our rates, but it’s taken away the hope that a magic thing happened.”

The good news is that more people are getting vaccinated every day. South Carolina just opened up vaccinations to anyone 16 and older.

And right now, Sweat puts a conservative estimate of the immunity level in the Tri-county area at about 40%. That factors in the number of people who have been vaccinated and the number who have tested positive for COVID-19 during the past three months. He uses three months as a standard because it’s the only post-infection time period for which there’s scientific evidence about immunity at this point.

Meanwhile, statewide, Sweat puts the current immunity level even higher, at about 45%. And he likes what science suggests about the near future. “We have strong data that says within three months from now, about 83% of people will have good immunity.”

But Sweat worries about a few things that could help the coronavirus make a comeback. First: the presence of variants. A lab at the Medical University of South Carolina found both “variants of interest” and “variants of concern” in coronavirus samples earlier this month. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is tracking them, too.

Sweat is especially concerned about a variant first spotted in the United Kingdom. “That's the one we're seeing in almost 20 or 30% of our cases in South Carolina now. And it's 50% more transmissible,” he said. “In Europe, they're having a major outbreak and they really attribute it to that variant.”

Another concern: vaccine hesitancy. Not everyone who can get vaccinated wants to. Sweat recently got early results from a survey his team conducted on the coronavirus in the Charleston area. It found that about 30% of the people who responded either aren’t sure if they’ll get vaccinated or already know they don’t want to.

Finally, Sweat worries about caution fatigue. People are sick of worrying about getting sick. “I don’t think they’re being as vigilant. Right now, 60% of people in the Tri-county area are unvaccinated or haven’t had COVID, putting them at risk. You know how this virus works. Once it gets into the right network, it can really fly.”

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