New COVID case numbers are out. ‘It’s really good. But I don’t think it’s going to last,’ scientist says.

April 21, 2022
Illustration of waves with COVID particles. iStock
Illustration of COVID waves. iStock

Reported COVID cases in the Charleston Tri-county area were both low and stable over the past week, according to the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project. “They’re remarkably good. They can't go much lower,” said project leader Michael Sweat, Ph.D., of the latest COVID data release from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

It showed that there were 228 cases in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined from April 10 to April 16. The previous week’s total was 229.

“It’s really good. But I don't think it’s going to last,” Sweat said. “It’s already brewing. If you look at what’s going on across the country, there’s been a 47% increase over the past two weeks in the number of cases reported. And keep in mind that the vast majority of people are using home tests, so they’re not getting recorded. I think there are a lot more than are being reported.”

Europe has had a big wave, Sweat said. “And in the U.S., it’s following that same pattern where it settles in the New England, New York area and the surrounding states. Even though there’s a lot of undercounting, in D.C., they’ve had a 151% increase in two weeks and their numbers are up to 34 cases per day, per 100,000 people. So if you figure a lot more people are getting it not being reported, I think it’s happening. And I think it’s going to likely follow the pattern we’ve seen in the past, and it will hit here sometime in the summer.”

Bar graph showing increasing transmissibility of COVID variants. 
Sweat created this graph showing the increase in transmissibility as the virus continues to mutate.

He also noted that there has been “a barrage of variants.” “We're just seeing a whole new branch of the family tree having its progeny go out, and every one of these gets more and more infectious. Delta was about 40% to 80% more contagious than Alpha, which was more contagious than the earlier one. And then Omicron was 40% more than Delta. And then BA.2 30% more than BA.1. And now this BA 2.12 and BA.2.121 is 25% more. It’s mutating toward transmissibility. It’s getting more and more contagious."

The good news: “It doesn’t seem to be changing its virulence so far.”

His assessment came as the number of people taking pandemic precautions in public in the Charleston area dwindles. “The masks are mostly gone, and a lot of people are back to normal, which is fine. I mean, that’s what you do. You want to watch what happens and adjust as you go. I’m just worried that we’re not going to adjust back when we need to. I think the ability to do that has been compromised. You have to know when to turn masking requirements back on, and that’s hard because there are different perceptions on that.”

Something else that’s tricky: answering a couple of key questions as we face the possibility of another wave. “One is how high would that curve go – how many people will get infected? And the other one is how many will people end up in the hospital? It’s so complicated,” Sweat said.

“On the first point, I don't think it’s going to go so high. One reason is if you look at Europe, what seems to be happening is it climbs up to about a third of the height of the first Omicron wave, then goes down or tapers off. And it makes sense to me because it’s confronting a population with a lot of immunity because a lot of people just had a fresh infection,” Sweat said.

“When you fold it all together, there are multiple variables at play, and that suggests to me we are going to see fewer infections because of the prior immunity, and that could drive down hospitalizations because we just have fewer people who get sick. I think we’re going to have to wait and see.”

But Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC, 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, said it’s important to realize that we have more virus-fighting tools at our disposal than in the past, along with more tracking and scientific modeling.

“So all of those things push us toward an endemic state. And I think we’re getting there. I mean, I think life has gone much more back to normal. It’s just when the next wave comes, what will happen? It seems to me that we’re going to be living with these waves for a while.”

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