COVID cases in Charleston area rose more than 730% in a week. What’s next, and when might this end?

January 05, 2022
Graph shows new peak for COVID cases in Charleston Tricounty area.
The Omicron variant, which accounted for more than 60% of all COVID samples sequenced at MUSC in a recent update, has driven the Charleston area to a new pandemic peak.

The Omicron variant is driving what scientist Michael Sweat, Ph.D., called a meteoric rise in cases in the Charleston Tri-county area.“The weekly growth rate was just sky high, 738%.”

The rise in daily cases can be rocket-like, too – encapsulated by what happened between Jan. 2 and Jan. 3. The Charleston area, which includes Berkeley and Dorchester counties, went from 124 cases per 100,000 people to 217 per 100,000 in that one-day period. “It’s stunning,” Sweat said.

Sweat leads the COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project at the Medical University of South Carolina. It’s been tracking COVID since the early days of the pandemic to inform the public and give leaders scientifically sound information and forecasts to guide their decisions.

And what the team is seeing right now is a surge unlike anything we’ve dealt with so far — in ways that are both worrying and reassuring. Worrying, because Omicron is really contagious. “I've never seen an RT that high in our world,” Sweat said of the virus’ current basic reproductive number, a measure of its infectiousness. “It's like lightning. It just takes off.”

But his team’s assessment is also reassuring — in a way — when it comes to hospitalization rates. Sweat’s team estimates a 60% reduction in hospitalizations compared with previous waves, based on studies from the U.K. and Denmark.

The problem is that Omicron may infect so many people that it will still fill hospitals. The super spreading variant may also take a toll on health care workers who take care of COVID patients and test positive themselves, triggering the need to quarantine and miss work.

It’s already clear that hospitalizations at MUSC Health are on the rise. “There were 18 people hospitalized with COVID a few days ago, and that number just jumped to 48,” at the main hospital in Charleston, Sweat said. 

The number of COVID patients in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital and MUSC Health hospitals across the state is rising, too. But leaders say all MUSC Health hospitals still have plenty of room and there are plans in place to expand COVID care as needed.

Meanwhile, they’re keeping an eye on estimates of how long the Omicron surge may last. “What you want to do is look at other places and see when it drops - and it isn't dropping anywhere. Nowhere. It just keeps going up” in other states, Sweat said.

But the surge may be relatively short, he predicted, because Omicron will run out of people to infect. At this point, Sweat said it looks like we could peak between 250 and 350 cases per 100,000 people. “I think it could happen pretty quickly. That would be my guess,” Sweat said. “If we get up to 300 cases per day, per 100,000, that means 6% of our total population in the area will get infected within 60 days.”

With that in mind, Sweat encouraged people to be careful for the next month or so. “I think it'll probably wash over, hopefully, relatively quickly.” 

Sweat has plenty of experience to guide that prediction. The veteran public health scientist is both a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He also worked as a research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Sweat said based on how Omicron is acting, it could lead to a lot immunity that could keep case counts low once its surge stops. “But this coronavirus always surprises. It's a very big worry that more variants are going to come out. When the incidence is this high, the chances go up a lot.”