'I just didn't think it would go this high this quick'

July 30, 2021
Illustration of coronavirus with a red arrow showing an increase in cases.
The latest update from MUSC COVID tracking team shows the number of cases in the Tri-county area doubled in a week.

“It’s kind of back to the old days,” said the leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID tracking team, as a weekly update showed a 90% increase in new infections in the Tri-county area compared with last week. “It’s worrying on so many levels.”

The number of cases in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined was 1,230 for the week that ended July 27. The week before, it was 651. The week before that, 411.

“I just didn't think it would go this high this quick,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. “It's targeting this moderate level of people who haven't been infected, and it's happening very fast. It’s just going bonkers in the unvaccinated, and it’s terrible to see.”

Half the state is unvaccinated, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard. But some of the unvaccinated have natural immunity from getting sick with COVID, depending on how long ago they caught the virus.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

You can blame the delta variant for the increase in cases, Sweat said. It’s highly contagious. “Human psychology makes you want to think that this comes and then goes away, but what's really happening is it keeps coming and going and coming back again. I think people are very frustrated and exhausted with that pattern.”

That includes people who work in hospitals. “I think for the health system, which is obviously a high concern of MUSC, there's sort of three questions in mind for me. How high will this go? How fast will it happen? And how severe are the cases going to be?” Sweat said.

“If you’ve got a lot of people infected, it puts pressure on the health system, but how fast is really important too. If it all happens too quickly, it can overwhelm the system. And I think that's what we're seeing in Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas and now parts of Florida, where it just happened so quickly that some percentage of people are going to end up in the hospital.”

The delta variant doesn’t seem to make people sicker than earlier iterations of the coronavirus. But its ability to spread easily makes it a real threat. 

And there’s now concern that delta may infect a small number of fully vaccinated people who might go on to spread the virus. That’s behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest recommendation that people mask indoors in public places. But Sweat said breakthrough infections are occurring infrequently and are almost all mild cases. 

He hopes the overall increase in cases will nudge more people to get their shots. “The areas that are more vaccinated, like up in new England, they're not having the same phenomenon we are.”

He said if our cases continue to go up, we could see something similar to what we’ve seen during earlier waves of COVID: a three-month cycle. “If we peak into September, you would kind of expect it to be down by October. But this could cause a lot of heartburn for issues related to kids in school. We have vaccines that work — it's all a matter of getting people to take them.”

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