Déjà vu? Striking similarity in COVID cases

June 11, 2021
Graph showing the peaks and valleys of COVID-19.
If you look at the left and right extremes of this graph, you can see how similar the COVID level in the Tri-county area is to last year at this time.

The number of COVID cases in the Charleston Tri-county area is right where it was last year at this time — three for every 100,000 people. “We’re down in some low digits here. That’s really good,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 tracking team.

But when he looks at what happened next in the summer of 2020, he worries history will repeat itself – although on a much smaller scale. “I just can't imagine we're not going to see some sort of increase in the weeks ahead.”

Last summer, after the governor lifted a “home or work” order and other restrictions eased, a lot of people emerged from lockdown eager to shake off pandemic precautions. It got hot outside, so they gathered inside to cool off with some air conditioning. Masks had become a political issue, so not everyone wore one.

Then, cases skyrocketed in July. So did the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

This summer, Sweat said, it’s possible that we’ll see another increase — but a much smaller one, thanks to vaccinations and the natural immunity some people have from getting COVID. His team estimates that 62% of people in the Tri-county area, including children, have at least some immunity to COVID-19.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

But it’s getting hot outside, so we’re gathering in air-conditioned spaces again. Masks and social distancing are fading. And despite the fact that almost 40% of people in our area have no immunity to COVID-19, things have pretty much gotten back to normal in a lot of areas.

“I know it feels like everything's better, but there's still been a risk for people with no immunity. I think it's going to go up in the next few weeks,” Sweat said.

“But all of us who so have immunity — that, in mass, protects people without it. It makes it harder for that virus to move around and ultimately get to people with no immunity. So it's certainly going to be lower. The cases will be mild or mostly asymptomatic. And also, among young people, because older people, 65 and above, have very high rates of vaccination.”

With that in mind, he does not anticipate the kind of strain we saw on hospitals last summer. “If we do see an increase in the weeks ahead, it will be totally manageable.”

But Sweat is also keeping an eye what COVID-19 is doing in other countries. “It's burning overseas in a terrible way. That's going to affect so many things — our own risks with new variants, the global economy, migration pressures, political stabilization. This is a big deal,” he said.

“Latin America is on fire, badly, and it's popping up badly in parts of South Asia, and Africa is a massive worry. In Uganda, a huge blow-up is happening. That's very risky. Getting the global community to do something about that is so important for all of those places.”

The more the coronavirus spreads, the more chances it has to change. “Variants could mutate to evade immunity. And we've seen some evidence of that in minimal ways. Vaccines appear to be a little bit less effective against the Indian variant. So that's a bad signal. It suggests if more and more mutations occur, and there'll be pressure on those viruses to do that, then we could end up having variants that we aren’t immune to.”

But for now, he’s happy to see our case numbers continue to drop. The latest MUSC update shows the Tri-county area’s growth rate went down 37% compared with the previous week. If a summer bump is coming, it’s not showing itself yet. “Hopefully it won't happen and I'll be just totally wrong,” Sweat said.

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