'Big jump this week' says MUSC scientist tracking COVID cases

July 27, 2022
Four yellow circles ringed in red on a blue background. This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2. Credit: NIAID
Transmission electron microscope image shows the virus that causes COVID-19. Virus particles are emerging from the surface of a cell cultured in the lab. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

As anticipated by the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 tracking team, case numbers are shooting up as BA.5 spreads. The Charleston Tri-county area saw a 28% increase, Lancaster a 44% increase and the Midlands a 22% increase.

“Big jump this week,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of MUSC’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project. “The whole state is starting to go into the high category.”

Map of South Carolina with most of the state colored orange. Small parts are green or yellow. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates most of South Carolina as having a high community level of COVID.

The latest map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs that up, with most of South Carolina colored orange to signify a high community level of COVID. Yellow represents medium, green means low.

“We’re in one of those waves. It would be prudent for people to take a stock of their risk and maybe take a break from things like group gatherings for a while. It’s just the reality we’re in.”

The CDC recommends that people in areas with a high level of COVID wear masks indoors in public and on public transportation, stay up to date with vaccination, get tested if they have COVID symptoms. And people who are at a higher risk of getting seriously sick from COVID, because of an existing health condition, should consider additional precautions, according to the CDC.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

BA.5 first showed up in testing at MUSC in early June. The Omicron subvariant spreads so quickly that it now makes up more than 80% of COVID variants in the U.S.

Sweat said it has a pattern of coming in as infections from an earlier subvariant, BA.2, are going down. “So they overlap.”

Sweat’s team, which posts weekly updates on the four parts of South Carolina where MUSC Health has hospitals, did find one site where BA.5 may not be doing its worst yet. “Florence is at 38 cases per day per 100,000 people and just saw a minor decline. That happens. But it’s generally going up.”

He said that in most areas, COVID case numbers will probably keep going up quickly for the next few weeks, then plunge. For now, their rise is pretty stunning. For example, Sweat estimated that between one in 30 and one in 50 people in the Charleston Tri-county area got infected last week. “If it continues identically for two weeks in a row like that, that means one out of every 15 to 25 people over a two-week span are getting infected.”

But we’re in a better position to deal with COVID these days, thanks to vaccinations, booster shots and other factors. While MUSC Health has seen a recent increase in people hospitalized with COVID, it’s nothing like the earlier days of the pandemic. And the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reports that deaths are trending down.

Still, Sweat said, people need to take COVID seriously. “The death rate is 400 per day in the United States. Four hundred a day is 146,000 people a year. That puts it up there. You know, that’s more people than the deaths from diabetes or from kidney disease. This is here and it’s going to keep going on. We just need to adapt to that and not pretend it’s not real or it’s not happening.”

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