Doctors see post-Easter COVID uptick as another holiday weekend approaches

May 06, 2022
Clinical lab scientist Tanisha Dickerson carries a tray of materials involved with testing.
Clinical lab scientist Tanisha Dickerson works in a COVID testing area. Photo by Sarah Pack

Infectious disease specialists at MUSC Health are seeing a small increase in COVID cases that started after local schools’ spring breaks and Easter. “Is it the beginning of our Omicron variant surge or is it just a little increase?” MUSC Health hospital epidemiologist Cassy Salgado, M.D., wondered.

“The numbers are going up — not to certainly the levels that we saw with any previous surge; maybe they've gone up by 50% or so compared to the very low level that they were. We're seeing, at least on the Charleston campus, 10 or less patients on an average day in the hospital with COVID. The hospital is only mildly affected at this point.”

With the Memorial Day weekend coming up at the end of May, another time when people gather with family and friends, Salgado said it’s a challenging time for her field. She directs the Division of Infectious Diseases in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Cassandra D. Salgado, M.D., MS 
Dr. Cassy Salgado

“We have a really hard time understanding what's happening in the community because there are very few leading indicators about how many cases are actually out there. Testing is so different than what we've been used to. If we rely on hospitalizations to track COVID, it's going to be a three- to four-week lag behind when cases in the community would typically increase.”

She said home testing is convenient for the public, but the people who do it don’t get counted in the state’s weekly COVID update. Salgado’s colleague, Scott Curry, M.D., wished they could submit their results to the state. He’s an assistant professor in the College of Medicine and the MUSC Charleston campus hospital epidemiologist. 

“If we were to track those that would really solve some of our problem, because we’d at least have some leading indicator of how many sick folks are out there. School nurses could report the kids they’re rapidly testing. And it would give us so much more actionable data to know what's going on day to day,” Curry said. 

“I don't want this to end up like flu where we just sort of track flu deaths. That's a really lagging indicator of trouble, but it may be where we're headed. We’ll know there’s trouble when we see the ICUs half filled.”

We are far from that point right now, Salgado said. And we may not get there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s May forecast for new COVID hospital admissions predicts a small increase for South Carolina.

Dr. Scott Curry 
Dr. Scott Curry

“But it’s worth being a little more careful. COVID is still around. Know what your risk is. Wear a mask if you are going to be in crowded indoor situations where you don't know the status of other people. Get vaccinated. Get your booster if you're eligible. Test yourself,” Salgado advised.

Just over half of all South Carolinians eligible for vaccination are fully vaccinated. And in the Charleston Tri-county area, less than a quarter of the total population has had a booster shot, according to MUSC's COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project.

“We now are approaching the one-year mark for almost everybody who's two- and three-dose vaccinated. We know that immunity wanes. it'll be less and less effective with time,” Curry said.

“I think we're definitely in store for another surge,” Salgado said. “Thinking about our population in general in South Carolina, we are probably more vulnerable than some other states because of our low vaccination rate. The timing of it is just less predictable in my mind, mostly because I feel like I lost my ability to accurately track what’s happening.”

“I think we’ve got at least two good surges left,” Curry said.

Salgado said their team is prepared for whatever happens. “We have new measures in place. We're a little more nimble than in the early days. We figured out a lot of stuff. There's also a lot more guidance available based on more science that's come out in the infection prevention world. It's just generally the sheer numbers of people that can get us into trouble.”

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