Omicron passes peak as hospitalizations hit new high

January 27, 2022
Graph shows Omicron surge peaked January 15.
"The curve looks like the Empire State Building to me," says Dr. Michael Sweat.

As anticipated by the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 tracking team, new data show that Omicron has peaked in the Charleston Tri-county area. It hit a pandemic high of 416 cases per day per 100,000 people on Jan. 15. It has steadily fallen since then. Over the last seven days, it dropped another 22% to 230 cases per day per 100,000 people.

“The curve looks like the Empire State Building to me,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the MUSC team, referring to the updated graph. The same holds true for all four areas the team tracks, including Florence, Lancaster and the Midlands.

“But I just can't stress enough how high the rate still is, though. I mean, that's a big number of people getting infected every day. I worry people are going to see the statement that things are declining rapidly and not be careful at this period where there's are a lot of cases occurring.”

Adding to his concern is a record rise in another metric he keeps on eye on. The number of COVID patients in MUSC Health’s Charleston hospitals is now 178, up from 174 on Jan. 25 and 161 on Jan. 24. The numbers include patients in Ashley River Tower, the Institute of Psychiatry, University Hospital and the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital.

“It's a large proportion of the overall number of people in the hospital. Every one of those people, for some period of time, has to be isolated, and it takes a lot of effort and time to treat somebody in isolation. So it's a really big burden on the hospital,” Sweat said.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

He said the increase was expected after the surge because hospitalizations usually run a few weeks behind infections. It takes time for someone to get sick enough to need to go to the hospital. Sweat expects hospitalizations to ease in the near future.

But he hopes something else rises as we ride out the rest of the Omicron wave: the number of people getting booster shots. “There's been some analysis of mortality and hospitalizations. Omicron hit Europe, the U.K., before us. They’re having about half the rate of mortality that we are. It's believed vaccination and boosting in particular are the reasons. We have very low boosting rates. I think it's 20-something percent for the whole country. In Europe, it's up over 50%. And the impact of boosting is profound. I don't think that message is getting out enough,” Sweat said.

“The vaccine effectiveness for hospitalization, comparing people who just had two shots, it's something like 34%. But if you got the booster, it's up around 80-something percent. So it has a huge impact when it comes to keeping you out of the hospital. I think we are suffering more than they are in places with higher boosting rates. The effect wanes, and that booster really primes your cellular immunity very strongly.”

And staying on top of pandemic precautions, such as booster shots, continues to be important as we face the possibility of more variants. One that’s in the news these days, the Omicron subvariant BA.2, isn’t a big worry for Sweat. “I would think that immunity from the mother variant, Omicron, would provide strong immunity against slight variants like this.”

But Sweat, a professor in MUSC’s College of Medicine, adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is concerned about what else might be out there.

“A bigger worry to me is will another variant pop out of some weird space like Omicron did. Omicron did not come out of the lineage of Delta. It originated from the original Wuhan virus, they think, based on all of the genetics they’ve done.”