'I would describe the situation as high but stable,' scientist says of COVID

June 27, 2022
Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID
SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Two and a half years into a pandemic that has led to a lot of firsts for this era, a scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina said he’s seeing another one this summer.


“I don't think we've ever been in a time where we're having a surge coupled with a lot of people being unaware of it and with minimal masking and distancing and favoring outdoors over indoors. The vast majority of people are not doing any of those things. That's unique.”


But Michael Sweat, Ph.D., a professor in MUSC’s College of Medicine, an adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said context is key. In the early days of the pandemic, people were afraid of dying from COVID. Fewer feel that way now – with good reason.


“We've definitely seen a very low mortality rate in this surge. I think it's largely due to the immunity that's out there because so many people have caught it or had vaccinations.”


Long COVID, however, is a real concern, Sweat said. “I think a fair number of people, something like 20 to 30%, get what might technically be called long COVID.” The most reported symptoms of long COVID include fatigue and brain fog, according to the American Medical Association.


The way to prevent that is to avoid getting COVID, Sweat said. But that may not be easy right now for people who aren’t careful. It’s hard to tell exactly what the COVID case numbers are for the Charleston Tri-county area because so much testing is done at home. But using scientific modeling, Sweat thinks he has a pretty good idea. “I would describe the situation as high but stable.”


Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Could that stability be shaken by the upcoming Fourth of July holiday? Maybe, Sweat said. “Big holidays in general have tended to correlate with little bumps afterward. Sometimes big bumps. A lot of people are going to be getting together, and it's hot now, so people stay inside in the air conditioning a fair amount. That can lead to a lot of transmission — and there’s already a lot of transmission going on.”


But he’s encouraged that a recent weekly update from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control showed a 15% decrease in COVID cases for the Charleston Tri-county area. “It can go down and then back up again. So you want to see a consistent pattern before you get too excited.”


That caution is due not only to the upcoming holiday but also the coronavirus’s evolution. We’ve seen a series of variants. Omicron is dominant these days. Its subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 recently showed up in testing at MUSC.


“It looks like they’ll take over. And that could lead us down a path of more serious illness,” Sweat said.


“The other thing about BA.4 and BA.5 is that you can get reinfected. Same with BA.2. If you had it, two weeks later, you could catch the virus again. It was able to overcome immunity gained from earlier variants. So that's what the virus does — it mutates toward transmissibility.”


But tools to combat COVID are evolving, too, Sweat said. “Moderna has been testing a bivalent vaccine, meaning it has two components: the old original one, which came from the Wuhan variant, and an Omicron-specific component. Pfizer's also working on that. So that'll be a big breakthrough. I think it'll really make a difference, is my guess.”


A breakthrough – for the people who choose to get the updated shots. “I don't know that people are going to take vaccines much anymore. Some will, but you're still going to have those people who will never take a vaccine, and particularly an mRNA vaccine. And so on a public health level, it'll certainly help a lot, but it may not be a game changer.”

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