Six out of seven COVID metrics go green - but is plateau ahead?

September 17, 2021
Traffic light.
Uncertainty is the key word in this week's update from the MUSC COVID-19 tracking team. iStock

There is no doubt that seeing six of seven key COVID metrics for the Charleston area go green for the first time in weeks is great news. “It’s coming down, so we should feel good about that,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the COVID-19 tracking project at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

But there is some doubt about what lies ahead.“If I had a theme that I wanted to convey, it would be living with uncertainty,” Sweat said.

Case numbers dropped 21% to about 5,300 during the week that ended Sept. 14 for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined, compared with about 6,700 the previous week. So the drop that Sweat predicted has clearly arrived for the Tri-county area.

He hopes the numbers will keep going down. The drop after the most recent surge, the one from last winter, got the Charleston area down to almost no cases at one point this summer. 

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

But he worries the current surge, the highest of the pandemic, will follow a different trajectory.

“In the U.K., they saw a very rapidly evolving epidemic that rapidly de-escalated. But as it came about halfway down from the peak, it stalled. And as the weeks progressed, it went back up substantially,” Sweat said, referring to case numbers in the U.K.

Comparing the U.K. with South Carolina isn’t apples to apples. “We have a different pattern of vaccination, and we didn't have a lockdown that got lifted.”

But Sweat said what’s happened in other Southern states in the U.S. also suggests that at least a plateau may lie ahead.

“Looking at states down the road from us, they also had a pretty rapidly escalating epidemic. And then at least in Louisiana, there's a clear stall happening. It's flatline with some ups and downs. In Florida, I think you're also seeing that pattern. And then in Georgia, it maybe looks a little tenuous. They have a little blip that makes me worry,” Sweat said. 

“These are our sentinels to watch as we go forward, because they have been through what we've been through, and the pattern is looking so consistent. I think in a few weeks, we'll see where this goes. And if you see this same patternI would think we're going to have the same effect here.”

It’s not clear what’s driving the pattern, Sweat said. The reopening of schools, which happens relatively early in Southern states, could be a factor. So could endemic exhaustion. “I think many people are saying, ‘I'm just going to have to live my life and move on.’”

Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC who’s also affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Medicine and has worked as a research scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said answers are out there.


“I do think we'll get more information. It just takes time. Things aren't perfect. But I think one of the hardest things going forward is just trying to cope with all this uncertainty coming along.”