We're about four weeks away from this COVID surge's peak, scientist predicts

June 08, 2022
Graph shows increase in COVID cases for Tri-county area.
The reported COVID case rate in the Tri-county area may be "super undercounted," says public health scientist Dr. Michael Sweat.

The current COVID wave in the Charleston Tri-county area may leave last summer’s Delta-driven surge in the dust, with a projected peak in early to mid-July.“We’re in Omicron-land now,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the COVID-19 tracking team at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“Last year it was Delta, a different strain. Now we’re just getting into more and more highly transmissible strains. It's large numbers of people getting minor infections and reinfections.”

The terrain in Omicron-land is turbulent. Reported COVID cases were up 10% for the Charleston Tri-county area in Sweat’s team’s weekly update, hitting 34 cases per day per 100,000 people. It’s been going up for weeks at varying rates. 

Adding to the shifting surface: when you factor in the results from home tests that aren’t reported to the state, the numbers are much higher, Sweat said. “It’s always been undercounted. But it’s super undercounted now. I mean like 10 times undercounted. That suggests we’re already higher than the Delta wave.”

He based that undercount estimate on modeling from Johns Hopkins University and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which the Wall Street Journal reported on last week.

When it comes to how long this wave will last in South Carolina, Sweat looked to what has happened in other states. Statewide, South Carolina is seeing 26 reported cases per day per 100,000 people.

“This wave hit New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and New England first. They’re now seeing declines or flattening. New York was one of the first; it got up to 46 cases per 100,000 people per day. New Jersey got up to 55. Massachusetts got up to 50. So that kind of gives you a benchmark for what we will probably see. We’re likely four weeks away from the peak if our peak has a very similar timeframe.”

Another measure of COVID’s impact, hospitalizations, is going up – but fortunately, the actual numbers are small. “In the Tri-county area, in all hospitals in the past week, the percentage of beds being used for COVID patients went up 67%. These are not ICU beds. They’re just standard beds. So up to 1.5% of all beds are used now for people with COVID. That’s not a big number, but it’s growing. That tells you this trend has been going on for weeks because it takes weeks for this to get caught up in here,” Sweat said.

“And then the number of weekly admissions has more than doubled in the past week. So it’s still a small number, seven, eight people per week, but it’s growing.”

He said it’s likely to continue to grow at a time when pandemic precautions are not widely taken. “I just think we’re in a bit of a unique time because people are being asked to decide their risk-taking mitigation. I don’t sense that there’s very much awareness in the community of the fact that we are in a surge. I think it’s largely because it’s undercounted.”

But Sweat was encouraged by a development on the vaccine front that could help smooth the landscape in the near future. “New Moderna trial results just came out. They tweaked their vaccine to be a combination, called a bivalent vaccine. It combines the same old vaccine that was specific to the original version of COVID-19, with part of the vaccine that is very specific to Omicron. And it had a huge impact,” he said.

“It protected people twice as well as the old vaccine and with antibodies. So that would protect you from getting infected. I think by end of summer, we’re going to see that vaccine. That could start moving us into that pattern of updating the vaccine regularly, like the flu shot, and every year you get a booster with the new variant. That was really good news.”

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