'We're seeing a definite upward trend,' says scientist tracking COVID-19

November 09, 2022
Red balls with holes in them representing the coronavirus.
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (red) infected with the Omicron strain of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (blue), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

For the second week in a row, COVID-19 case numbers have gone up in areas monitored by the Medical University of South Carolina. “All in all, I think we are likely starting our winter surge,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the MUSC COVID-19 tracking team.

In the most recent weekly data release from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, “Charleston was up 18% over the previous week. In the Midlands, they had a 43% increase. In Florence, they had an increase of 9%. Lancaster rose a much higher 66%. So these trends are going up,” Sweat said.

But the actual case numbers those percentages represent are small because so few people are getting tested at sites that report positive case numbers to SCDHEC. Most people test at home or don’t bother to test at all. And that’s fine, Sweat said.

“It's so different now, because of immunity and some of the treatments that are available. It’s not like it was. But it's not over. People are still getting infected and we have outbreaks. I wouldn't forget that it was only last January that we had one of the biggest outbreaks ever.”

Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC, adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said COVID has settled into a pattern. “I think the indications are that it's looking a lot like last year and the year before. We start seeing this increase in November and then right after the holidays we get a big outbreak.”

The increase comes as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, are also infecting people across the country. “RSV has had a big impact on pediatric hospitals. It affects older people, too.  Elderly people can die from RSV. So yeah, it's a bit of a triple punch. But I don't think it's a panic-type situation.”

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

With that in mind, Sweat said people should calculate their personal risk as we head into the holiday season. “Most people are going to be fine through this. It's not like we're facing the original Omicron variant where a lot of people were dying. That's not happening. But if you’re living with somebody who's frail or older and immunocompromised, you would want to amplify your risk mitigation, particularly around the holidays. Consider pre-gathering testing, keeping parties small, ventilating and things like that.”

The Omicron variant he mentioned burst onto the scene in November of 2021. It went on to spawn highly contagious variants – and continues to do so. “There are some right now that are almost 200% more transmissible than the BA.5 we were dealing with over the summer,” Sweat said.

“But I'll tell you what's mitigating it. Immunity is getting so widespread. Plus, a lot of people got BA.5 over the summer. You would hope that you got some immunity from that. So even though the new Omicron variants are more transmissible, they’re confronting a population with a lot of immunity from BA.2 and BA.5. It's just a matter of watching right now.”

He’s hoping DHEC’s wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 will give scientists a better idea of how much virus is circulating. “It's an incredibly valuable thing. Except they're very, very slow to get it out. I suspect it's a challenging endeavor. It is great they've done it. I just wish we could get the information a little earlier.”

For now, he encouraged people to get COVID booster shots. They can not only keep someone from getting dangerously ill but also reduce their risk of developing long COVID. “The lack of uptake of boosters is unfortunate. I couldn't stress that enough. That would be my No. 1 public message: People who haven't taken that booster, particularly the most recent one, because it's bivalent, and it's specific to BA.4 and BA.5 in particular, should consider doing it now.”