'We're in a code red situation' in Tri-county with COVID

August 04, 2021
Illustration showing little deltas coming out of coronavirus.
Illustration showing the emergence of delta as the dominant variant. iStock

COVID-19’s impact in the Charleston area has gone from “significant” to “severe” in the latest update from the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project.

“It’s worse than I thought. We're in a code red situation,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., the team’s leader. “I worry that people aren't realizing this is happening. My current impression is that most of them aren't really tuned in that much to the sudden change we've had. It happened so quickly — within a matter of a week or so, it just took off like a rocket.”

Cases in the Tri-county area, which includes Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, hit 2,951 for the week that ended Aug. 3. The week before, it was 1,230. That’s a 140% increase.

“Dorchester County has the highest rate in the state right now, growing rapidly. It's also driving our numbers up in the Tri-county. I think there's geographic patterns that go on. Maybe Dorchester’s a little different with vaccination, but I think it's just like you see all over — it gets into a county, and then people start interacting, and it's spreading through networks in those counties,” Sweat said.

“Not even a month ago, we were down to almost nothing in the Tri-county area. The increase is probably due to a combination of the same seasonality that we saw last year — when it’s hot out, people gather inside with air conditioning. They’re also traveling more. But I think delta's probably explaining a lot of this.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Almost every COVID sample checked at MUSC is now the delta variant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called more contagious than the common cold, seasonal flu, Ebola and smallpox.

“I think anybody who's not vaccinated and hasn't had an infection is at high risk. It's really just kind of amazing how quickly this can transmit,” Sweat said.

He estimated that 28% of South Carolinians have been infected with the coronavirus, which continues to mutate. About half of the state’s residents have had at least one shot and about 44% are fully vaccinated.

But even the fully vaccinated may need to be careful, Sweat said. “We’re getting signals that a fair number of breakthroughs are happening.” That includes a big study out of England that’s raising new questions about how often breakthroughs occur.

The CDC says no vaccine is 100% effective, but the COVID vaccines are a key way to get the pandemic under control, keep people out of the hospital and save lives.

Sweat said there’s no question that the COVID vaccines are very effective at preventing hospitalization and death.

So where do we go from here in terms of the current surge in cases? Sweat said you can look at what’s happening in states where this COVID wave hit earlier than in South Carolina.

“If you move back up to where this started, Missouri, I think that's the leading edge of where the decline is happening. You can see downward trends all over Missouri. It looks like the virus is following its typical pattern of about eight to 12 weeks to play out its cycle.”

The U.K., which was also hit hard by the delta variant, has seen its numbers go back down, too.

But that’s no reason to let down your guard during this wave here, Sweat said. Delta is dangerous. “This could be so transmissible that it’s going to be a huge wave of infection occurring among all these people with no immunity. If it all happens really quickly, it can overload the health system.”

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control recommends indoor masking in public places for now, whether you’re vaccinated or not. Sweat said people may be surprised to hear how high the numbers have gotten, but it’s important to know what the reality is so they can protect themselves.

“We will survive this. I mean, I think it's going to keep going up for a while, but it's going to come back down again, and we're going to have to figure it out. I think people will start to adapt to all of this, and life will go on.”

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