Charleston area sees ‘massive explosion of cases,’ blowing past conservative estimates for COVID growth

January 11, 2022
Graph showing the number of COVID cases in the Tricounty area hit 380 per 100,000 people on January 9, 2022.
The MUSC COVID-19 tracking team is following the Omicron-driven wave, the highest of the pandemic. The team's leader predicts it could peak in a few weeks.

As COVID cases hit a new pandemic high of 380 confirmed infections per 100,000 people in the Charleston Tri-county area on Jan. 9, public health scientist Michael Sweat, Ph.D., said even more cases are probably going undetected. “I think a lot of people aren’t getting tested. There are difficulties getting tested right now. I just think we're having a massive explosion of cases - even more than I anticipated.”

Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and leader of MUSC’s COVID-19 tracking team, described the current spread as out-of-control. “It's just logarithmically growing right now,” he said. “We’ve already gone higher than I thought we might.”

But that won’t last forever. “I do think based on what we're seeing in other places that it's going to climb to a certain point and then drop, and if it's anything like other places, it will drop quickly. I still think that will happen. The question is when,” Sweat said.

“In New York and London and other places up North, they got to 450, 500 cases per 100,000 people and peaked. But we may go higher. Miami right now is at 581 cases per 100,000 people. Maybe it’ll go to 600 here. I hope not.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Sweat said South Carolina’s relatively low vaccination rate — just over half of all eligible residents are fully vaccinated — may be a key factor. “I actually think we will have a peak relatively soon — if I had to guess, in the next couple of weeks. When you have this kind of growth, it's spreading like wildfire and it will burn itself out. It'll infect so many people all at once that it won't have anywhere else to go.”

While Omicron doesn’t cause as high a percentage of infected people to be hospitalized as the Delta variant did, Omicron is reaching so many people that it’s still driving the number of hospitalized people close to the previous pandemic peak at MUSC Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccines are highly effective at keeping people from getting severely ill and recommends boosters for people who are fully vaccinated. Sweat said some people are missing that message.

“People keep saying, ‘This is mild,’ or, ‘This is milder than Delta.’ That's creating some misperceptions. I don't want to be an alarmist, but I don't think people are interpreting this right. Some people get really sick. At the societal level, it's leading to huge numbers of people being absent, which is going to disrupt our economy and services. And it's really creating a problem in the hospitals. And it’s going to get worse,” Sweat said.

Sweat, who’s also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the situation serious. “There are a lot of unknowns. How much long COVID will we see from this? We know from other variants that a lot of people get long COVID. We also don't know what the mortality is going look like. It’s happening so fast; we don't know these impacts. So I just don't think people ought to assume it's this benign thing. And also, we don't know whether this will lead to herd immunity. It may not,” Sweat said.

“And history is showing us that other variants are likely. You get variants when you have high transmission rates — and we've never seen such high transmission rates. So we could have another variant. The more we can suppress the virus, the better it is for everybody.”

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