‘The alert level has gone up.’ Respiratory viruses surge in Charleston area and beyond

January 02, 2024
Map of the United States shows the southeast in dark purple, indicating a high level of respiratory viruses.
The purple tells the story. Respiratory virus activity levels are very high in South Carolina and a few of its neighbors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest update.

The team that helped people across South Carolina navigate the COVID-19 pandemic by providing tracking data on infection rates has added information about other respiratory viruses to its site this winter. And it doesn’t paint a pretty picture right now.

“The alert level has gone up,” said team leader Michael Sweat, Ph.D., at the Medical University of South Carolina. 

“I just pulled the newest numbers from this morning and added them up for hospitalized patients at MUSC Health in Charleston, and they went up again. So it looks like COVID, there are 33 hospitalized patients, and flu, 27.” That’s up from 30 patients with COVID and 25 with flu about a week earlier. COVID and flu are now at their highest levels in months.

Sweat’s team also looks at MUSC Health hospitalizations in three other geographic areas: Florence, Lancaster and the Midlands.

  • In Florence, flu and COVID hospitalizations are both high.
  • In Lancaster, there are substantially more hospitalizations for flu than COVID.
  • In the Midlands, flu hospitalizations are high and COVID numbers are rising.

Fortunately, hospitalizations for another illness Sweat’s team now tracks, respiratory syncytial virus, have gone down in recent weeks. If you aren’t familiar with RSV, you’re not alone. For most people, it just feels like a cold. But RSV can make babies and older people seriously sick, so the MUSC team tracks its presence, too.

Regarding COVID and flu, Sweat said that while people need to keep in mind that while they’re surging, the increased numbers were not unexpected. “This is so typical of what we see every year. It has always been tied to our holiday period and cold weather. And it's happening again,” he said.  

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

He can say that with confidence developed during years of monitoring public health. Sweat launched the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project in the early days of the pandemic, using his expertise in both global health and as a former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to show the public and health care and government leaders what was happening – and what might lie ahead. 

But the tracking team’s work is far from over. Sweat, a professor in MUSC’s College of Medicine and an adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s important for MUSC to keep people informed, letting them know what scientists are seeing in real time. 

“That’s what we're all about, right? Improving the health of the community. Prevention's a big part of that. And so informing people what's happening out there is valuable, I think.”

That information can help them take steps in times such as this to try to protect themselves. “You don't want to catch the flu or COVID. It's not a pleasant experience,” Sweat said.

“Anybody who's vulnerable, I think they ought to be careful. If you're on chemotherapy or you have obesity, diabetes, hypertension, you're at risk. And particularly older people and frail people. So the smart thing to do is when things get bad like this, you pull back a little and maybe wear the mask to the grocery store and on flights that you take.”

He recommends that people who suspect they have COVID test themselves. “It’s smart for two reasons. One, because if you know you have it, you can avoid infecting other people, which is the right thing to do. And two, you may be able to get the COVID treatment Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of the illness.”

He also said it’s not too late to get vaccinated. “While the surge is probably not going to last more than another month or so, we'll start to see the decline. But a lot of people can still get sick during that time.”

Bottom line: consider using a little more caution for now. “There's a lot of transmission occurring. So take a look at your risk and your tolerance for that risk,” Sweat said.