COVID prediction: 'It's probably going to go up like a rocket and drop like a cannonball'

July 20, 2022
The words Omicron BA.5 on a blue background with a white arrow pointing up. Illustration of coronavirus particles on right side.
The Omicron subvariant BA.5 has quickly become dominant across the United States. iStock

The leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 tracking team is predicting the subvariant BA.5 will cause cases to spike in the near future. “I think there's probably two scenarios that are likely,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. “One is we’re going to quickly go back up in just a few weeks. The other scenario is it might take a little longer.”

Either way, Sweat said the spike should be brief. “People should know that it's probably going to go up like a rocket and drop like a cannonball.”

Sweat is a professor in MUSC’s College of Medicine, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Medicine and a former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also directs MUSC’s Center for Global Health.

Sweat has been using that expertise to provide analysis and predictions throughout the pandemic. He said BA.5, an offspring of the Omicron variant, is now dominant in the United States and likely to become so locally as well. The CDC recently estimated that BA.5 made up 78% of the coronavirus variants across the country. Health officials are encouraging people 50 and up to get booster shots for protection.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

MUSC reported its first case of BA.5 more than a month ago. Scientists there are in the process of sequencing more COVID samples, which shows what variants are circulating. Like Sweat, they expect to find fast-spreading BA.5 is quickly expanding its reach.

“BA.5 is distinguished mostly by its ability to reinfect, more so than any of the earlier variants. I mean, the other ones could reinfect people, but this one's really good at it,” Sweat said.

Parts of the state are already dealing with an increase in COVID cases. Sweat’s team, which focuses its analyses on four areas of South Carolina that have MUSC Health hospitals, found the Midlands and Florence saw 20% increases between July 10 and July 16. The Charleston Tri-county area saw a much smaller increase, just 2%, and Lancaster actually went down a percent from the previous week. 

But nobody should get too comfortable, Sweat said. “Regionally, there are huge outbreaks in Louisiana and Alabama, and last year we saw a similar pattern prior to our big surge.”

Last summer’s surge peaked in September. 

“I wouldn't say we're in an alarming state now, but it's likely to come. And I think for people who are worried about it, now is a good time to wear that mask. You can live your life. Just ratchet it back a little bit, keep an eye on it,” Sweat said. 

“COVID is not a death sentence for most people, but I don't want to diminish the significance of the infection. It's not as minor as the flu because of all the concerns about long COVID. And, and you know, we're still seeing deaths. It's roughly 130,000 people a year. In a bad flu year, you'll get 40,000 deaths. So this is significant. People should be careful.”

But they should also know that a surge would be short-lived, Sweat said. “It’s very transmissible. But I think it’ll pass quickly.”

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