'We may be getting close to a max' as Tri-county sets new COVID record

September 02, 2021
Micrograph of cell infected with the coronavirus.
Colorized micrograph of a cell infected with the coronavirus (blue). National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

The Charleston Tri-county area’s weekly COVID case rate just shot up another 25%, going from about 5,600 cases to almost 7,000 — a new pandemic high.

“It's a big number. It's growing fast. The slope is steep,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the COVID-19 tracking team at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The slope is the rate at which the case number is rising, which you can see in the graph below. The weekly average is now 124 cases per day for every 100,000 people in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined. That’s up from 100 last week and 81 the week before.

And unfortunately, that slope may keep going up a little longer, Sweat said. “The big question is when will this peak?"

Graph showing the increasing number of COVID cases in the Tri-county area. 
The Charleston area saw a 25% increase in COVID cases in a week, setting another pandemic record.

For now, he’s sticking with his prediction that it’ll happen fairly soon. “The evidence, based on other states that saw the kind of case rate we’re having, suggests we may be getting close to a max. I've been watching other places that have had big surges — Louisiana, Florida, Texas. I see this pattern. It seems like it's eight to 12 weeks. It goes up fast and then down relatively quickly.”

We could see our numbers start to go down at the state level when we hit between 120 and 200 cases per 100,000 people, Sweat said. “Some states, Arkansas and Missouri, hit peaks earlier than that. But when I get into the data and start looking county by county in these states, most of the counties go between 120 and 200 and then they drop.”

And states that haven’t dealt with surges yet may be next. Sweat said the virus spreads geographically. “It's our turn right now. I would say Tennessee and Kentucky and West Virginia and Indiana are next on the list.”

If they are about to see COVID surges, they, like South Carolina will be dealing with a new variable. “One big uncertainty is that most of the earlier epidemics occurred during the middle of the summer. But here, schools have opened during our surge.”

Kids in those schools under the age of 12 aren’t eligible to get vaccinated yet. Enough are testing positive for COVID in the Tri-county area that an increasing number of schools are temporarily going online.

“Delta is just really transmissible,” Sweat said. 

But the fact that it’s infecting so many people, combined with the increasing number of vaccinations, could eventually do Delta in. “There will be increasing immunity. There's just got to be a brake, like the brake on the car at some point, to slow this down.”

Sweat and the rest of the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project team have been working since early in the pandemic to analyze trends, offer predictions to help health care and government leaders make good decisions and inform the public. 

Sweat is a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC and affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He has a doctorate in medical sociology from Emory University and his experience includes time working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a research scientist.

He drew on that expertise to raise another pandemic point that could keep the COVID tracking team busy. “Nobody's thinking much about winter, but I still think we have a real potential for another surge in the winter. Last year’s was worse than that year’s summer surge.”

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