MUSC’s COVID tracker goes from green to yellow for Charleston area, which could also 'get clobbered by flu'

August 15, 2023
The words COVID 19 Data Tracker are at the top. Below that it says Charleston area and has an arc that goes from green to yellow to red. There is an arrow pointing at the yellow area.
A screenshot from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows a shift from green to yellow.

The Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 data tracker for the Charleston area has gone from green to yellow, or medium, leading to a change in its public health recommendations. 

“Our medium rating is really targeting people who are at risk. The elderly, people who have health problems, people who are immunosuppressed. It’s saying now is the time for those folks to really be careful,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D. He leads MUSC’s COVID tracking team.

Meanwhile, infectious disease specialist Scott Curry, M.D., is also urging people to be careful for another reason. “I think we’re going to get clobbered by flu this year.”

Both viral threats are emerging as hot weather is keeping a lot of people indoors, where viruses can spread more easily, and many area schools get ready to open. Sweat and Curry came together to talk about the risks and what people can do to prepare.

COVID uptick

Sweat’s assessment that the risk of COVID is on the rise is based on the growth rate. “We measure two things – whether there’s consecutive growth in wastewater and growth in hospital admissions.” Wastewater growth refers to the amount of COVID detected in the sewage system.

“The wastewater went up 20% over the past week, but it went up even more than that when you count two weeks. And the hospitalizations are now 2.8 per 100,000 people in the Tri-county area. That’s not that high. But it’s increasing. Emergency room visits have also been increasing at the state level.”

The words COVID 19 concentration in wastewater Charleston area. Updated August 11 2023. Red arrow on a gray chart with the words growth rate from the week prior: +20%. 
This graph from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows the increasing presence of COVID in wastewater.

Sweat said COVID seems to be following a seasonal pattern. “We have a history of this now for three years in a row, getting this wave mid to late summer. Last year it was into the fall. So it’s to be expected.”

Another pattern involves the emergence of a new variant, EG.5.5. “It’s growing. It’s going to become the predominant variant. That’s pretty clear, given the growth rate. It’s a progeny of Omicron,” Sweat said.

“It does spread faster. There are a couple of genetic mutations that allow it to infect people more easily. But I don’t think this is that much of a worry. These variants keep occurring. That’s just what viruses do. And this is the latest one.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

Sweat said a dramatic wave is unlikely given how many people have already had COVID or been vaccinated, leading to some immune system protection. 

But Curry said it’s still important to get tested if you suspect you have it. “Absolutely. Because if you got COVID, you should, I hope, care about that and not give it to Grandma or your sister with leukemia or Aunt Maude with cell-depleting therapy.  There are so many people out there that if you give COVID to them, are not going to do well.”

He said people with COVID should isolate at home for five days and consider seeing a doctor if needed. “If you’re kind of in the upper end of age or you’ve got underlying comorbidities, get treated. We've got three different FDA-approved, really effective treatments for COVID that will help keep you from getting sick enough to be hospitalized.” 

Curry emphasized that the medications only work if you get them at the beginning of the infection – so if you’re in a higher risk group, don’t wait.

And if you haven’t been vaccinated, now’s the time, Sweat said. People who have been vaccinated and want to strengthen their protection against COVID will be able to get new booster shots by the end of next month.

Sweat has a lot of experience in tracking COVID. Since the early days of the pandemic, he’s been analyzing data to help hospital leaders, government officials and the public understand what to expect. Sweat is a former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a current professor in MUSC’s College of Medicine. He’s also an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Medicine.

Curry has plenty of experience with COVID, too. He was on the front lines of the pandemic, treating patients as he and his colleagues around the world figured out how to best handle the evolving situation.

Flu Season

But COVID isn’t Curry’s only concern these days. The assistant professor in the College of Medicine was blunt when describing the risk of a rough flu season. “It's going to be early and it’s going be brutal. It won’t result in vast casualties or deaths, but it’ll be highly unpleasant in early Fall 2023.”

There are a couple of reasons for that prediction. “People spent a couple years masked up and not getting flu because of that simple public health prevention. That’s gone,” Curry said. “People are coming into our clinics hacking and coughing with no mask on.”

The other reason he thinks the flu season will be bad: “The Southern Hemisphere is having a riotously bad flu season. And usually what happens there ends up in the Northern Hemisphere the next flu season.”

Dr. Scott Curry 
Dr. Scott Curry

So instead of waiting until later in the year to get a flu shot, Curry encouraged people to get one as soon as possible. “It’s very hard to find them right this minute, but they should be getting on trucks in about two weeks. And MUSC’s supply is expected for the end of August. We’re really pushing that as soon as you can get it, please get it.”

There are more flu vaccine options than there were in the past. “Some of them are not even egg based, so you don’t have the ‘I can’t have a flu shot because I have an allergy’ excuse any longer. People need to really examine why are they not taking something that could prevent an illness that lands most people in bed for at least three to four days,” Curry said.

“Getting a vaccine can keep you from getting the flu, or if you do get it, the shot makes you a day less sick on an average. There are no compelling reasons not to get vaccinated for either the flu or COVID.”

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