Weekly COVID update shows worrying trend: 'We just keep going up'

May 26, 2022
Closeup of a hand holding a home COVID test. It shows a positive result.
A home COVID test shows a positive result. iStock

With COVID cases up another 26% in the Charleston Tri-county area in the latest weekly update, the leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 tracking team wants the public to be aware of the troubling trend as we head into the summer travel season. A lot of people will gather with family and friends, which can help the coronavirus spread. Meanwhile, the widespread availability of home tests means many positive cases go uncounted in the state’s tally.

“My main worry is that if we want to live in a society where people are empowered to make their own decisions about taking precautions or not, it only works when they know what the information is. And it’s important that they know that we are moving into a period of elevated transmission,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D.

“We’re up to 26 cases now per day per 100,000 people. Once again, I think this number’s a massive undercount. It could easily be 10 times that number.”

The previous week, it was 21 cases per day per 100,000 people in the Tri-county area. That was a 26% increase. The week before that, we saw a 121% increase.

“We just keep going up. It’s exactly what you would expect, looking at the national map. Almost all of the Northeast, particularly the further north you go, they’re all in the red now. And it’s clearly migrating in our direction,” Sweat said. Red areas of COVID tracking maps indicate higher levels of transmission.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

“If these trends continue – I think they will – within a week or two, I think we’ll be categorized by the CDC’s community level metric as moderate and maybe go to high. Watching all this just says to me, the wave is coming. I mean, it’s pretty likely that that’s happening.”

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 hospitalizations are another trend to track. “Our hospitalization numbers are not unmanageable right now, but they’re growing rapidly.”

As of May 24, about 50 people were hospitalized with COVID throughout the MUSC Health system, which includes hospitals across the state. And some of those hospitals are in areas that are seeing even bigger COVID case increases than the Tri-county.

“The Midlands had a 38% weekly increase in COVID cases. Lancaster was 52%. And this one really got my attention: a 118% increase in Florence. This is a very strong signal in that area that they’re likely to have big numbers coming up, even though their case numbers are lower than ours.”

Sweat said some of those people are likely to end up with long COVID. A large CDC study found that about 20% of adult COVID survivors under the age of 65 suffered from at least one post-COVID health problem that could be considered long COVID. That jumped to 25% for people 65 and up. The most common concerns involved respiratory symptoms and musculoskeletal pain.

“Long COVID is not something to mess around with. And it occurs among a fair number of people. It’s a minority, but it’s still a fair number of people,” Sweat said.

He encouraged people to get booster shots to reduce their risks – and keep an eye on case numbers to help them make good decisions about their actions. “Summer kicks off a lot of travel. People come and go around the country, enjoying themselves, going to parties and get-togethers and bars. And all of those things are engines of transmission,” Sweat said.

“And then as the summer progresses and we get hotter and hotter days, you get more and more closing the doors and having your get-together inside. I think that is likely what causes our waves in the summer.”

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