Will COVID capitalize on factors in its favor? We’ll know soon.

June 03, 2021
Thermometer showing high temperature
Hot weather is one factor in a possible summer spike in COVID cases.

Right around the Fourth of July, we could know whether COVID-19 will make a comeback this summer.

“I just think the next four weeks, we’re going to start getting answers as to whether herd immunity effects, through vaccination and natural immunity, are strong enough to counter three other forces: the variants, the abandonment of mask-wearing and distancing, and the warmer weather,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. “I honestly do think we're likely to see increases.”

How can that be, when things look so promising? Sweat’s COVID-19 tracking team at the Medical University of South Carolina just gave an update that shows six out of the seven categories it measures have gone green for the Charleston Tri-county area. Cases are down almost 40% compared with the previous week.

And that could continue, Sweat said. He hopes so.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

But the College of Medicine professor and director of the MUSC Center for Global Health is wary. MUSC analyses show highly transmissible variants are now dominant — and an estimated 38% of people in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined don’t have any immunity to COVID-19. That’s more than 300,000 people - including everyone, not just people who are eligible to get vaccinated - who could get sick.

And a lot of those people aren’t trying to protect themselves anymore. Sweat applauded the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks or socially distance in most situations. But he’s concerned that just about everyone now follows that advice, even if it doesn’t apply to them.

“The wholesale abandonment of mask wearing and social distancing just happened rapidly. It's striking. I mean, I stopped by the drugstore yesterday, and 90% of people in the store, including the clerks, had no mask on.”

And Sweat pointed to what happened this time last year: COVID-19 cases hit a new high on July 5 in the Tri-county area.

“Hot weather is coming. Last year, we saw huge swaths of cases from Virginia all the way down to Texas, where it's hot and humid. People go inside and enjoy the air conditioning, and those gatherings can help the virus spread. In May or June of 2020, it was a low level, and then it shot up like lightning over the summer.”

The good news is that a lot of people at risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19 have been vaccinated. “The infections going forward are going to be among younger people, because something like 78% of people 65 and older have been vaccinated. And it's a very direct relation,” Sweat said.

“The younger you are, the less likely you are to be vaccinated. So I don't think the hospitals will have much of problem, because you're not going to see that kind of situation we saw last summer and last winter. But it's not good for people who are not immune.”

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