After hitting a pandemic peak in January, COVID cases in the Charleston tri-county area have slipped into a welcome spring slump. “The numbers are really low. It’s at least as low as it was a year ago in the summer when everyone thought the virus was gone,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., project manager for the COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project. from the Medical University of South Carolina.
His team’s latest update shows there were an average of just 3.9 cases per day per 100,000 people in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties combined for the week of March 27 to April 2. Compare that with 416 cases per day per 100,000 in mid-January.
“It continues to drop week by week. So it’s just stellar,” Sweat said.
So where do we go from here? Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has a hunch. “I think there’s going to be an increase. I feel it in my bones. But I have a feeling maybe it’s not that bad.
He pointed to several factors driving this assessment: what is happening in Europe, seasonal trends in the Charleston area, vaccination and booster rates, Omicron’s level of immunity and the threat of new variants.
What’s happening in Europe
While we appreciate the low number of cases, other places aren’t so lucky. The sweat pointed towards parts of Europe. “France is at 205 cases per day per 100,000 inhabitants and increasing. When you see that combination of a pretty healthy growth rate and high numbers, it’s especially bad.
And the UK recently hit its highest numbers of the pandemic.
We have sometimes echoed trends in Europe. Will this happen again? It’s possible, says Sweat. “We tend to lag behind Europe, often by weeks.”
Sweat’s team, which has been tracking COVID since the early days of the pandemic, has noted four clear surges so far: the first in the summer of 2020, the second the following winter, the third in the summer of 2021. and the fourth the next day. Winter. Will this summer break the pattern?
“We can see an increase with lower numbers – but not the kind of hospital hit we’ve had from COVID in the past. It’s my instinct.
Vaccination and booster rates
Something that could help prevent this hospital: increase the rate of vaccinations and boosters. In South Carolina, the numbers aren’t great on that front. “About 59% of the total population received two doses of the vaccine. This is below the national average. It’s almost frozen in amber. I mean, it barely goes uphill at all,” Sweat said.
“And only 23% of people received three or more doses. It is extremely valuable to be boosted. This continues to have strong effects, including against BA.1 and BA.2, Omicron and its sub-variant.
Is it worth taking a second booster shot? We ask a lot of sweat. “All my family members called me and asked me, ‘What should I do?’ I often tell them, ‘Look, you know, it might protect you from that BA.2 if it comes along. If you’re a little older and have health issues – diabetes, for example, there aren’t many downsides. But the data needs to be looked at further. We need more time to know the durability of the fourth hit.
We know that many people have recently been infected with Omicron. “There has been a hodgepodge of reactions to COVID. Some people jumped on the vaccine right away and were boosted. A lot of people didn’t and a lot of people got infected. I read that 43% of the American population probably got the BA.1.
That could help slow the spread of the virus here, Sweat said.
Threat of new variants
A new variant called OmicronXE has shown in several hundred patients in the UK It is a mix of the original Omicron strain, BA.1, and its sub-variant, BA.2. It is unclear what effect this emerging variant will have on the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Sweat noted a huge spike in cases in part of Africa. “Botswana went from almost nothing to 258 cases per day, per 100,000 people in a single week. Is it another variant? That’s what I would like to know. And the variants seem to come out of that region a lot.
For now, he is happy to see the low case numbers locally. His team rates the impact of COVID on the Charleston area as “minimal” right now, down another 9% in one week. But MUSC scientists will continue to track the virus, regardless of its direction. “I think there is great uncertainty. it could also stay low for a long time, but at some point we are going to have another wave.”