‘Pay attention to Omicron, worry more about Delta’: MUSC reports increases in COVID-19 cases in 4 counties


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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- The Medical University of South Carolina is warning about a potential spike in COVID-19 cases as the holiday season nears.

“It’s not going in the right direction,” a professor in the College of Medicine, Michael Sweat, Ph.D., said.

MUSC’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project shows what researchers call “significant increases” in COVID-19 cases in the tri-county area and beyond.

The following is the latest information from the four counties MUSC monitors:

  • Charleston was up 43%, with 12 cases per day for every 100,000 people.
  • Florence was up 71%, with 17 cases per day for every 100,000 people.
  • Lancaster was up 39%, with 23 cases per day for every 100,000 people.
  • Midlands was up 65%, with 17 cases per day for every 100,000 people.

“This is totally Delta,” Sweat said, referring to the highly contagious coronavirus variant that accounts for virtually all COVID cases in the state right now. “There’s been a huge amount of concern in the press about Omicron, but right now we’re facing a Delta threat and people have just largely given up on masking and distancing and other measures.”

While Sweat said the relatively small numbers do not indicate a need for alarm, he added that the basic reproduction number (Rt) is something scientists are watching closely. The Rt of a virus shows the average number of people each infected person passes along the virus to. An Rt below one is good news.

“We’re getting some volatility above one, which tends to predict a wave coming,” Sweat said. “I’ll be watching those Rt values over the next few days to see if they’re going to stay above one.”

Sweat said the mitigation efforts have the biggest effects when Rts are elevated before a peak in cases, but that time has not come yet.

“I don’t know that I would pull the trigger just yet on any kind of big changes,” he said. “We’re getting advance warning here. I think we need a couple more days.”

Still, there are a number of unknowns as the newest variant, Omicron, was just identified in the United States last week. While some reports indicate the Omicron variant is less serve than the Delta variant, Sweat said the uncertainty is reason enough to take caution.

“There’s a lot of reasons I’d be cautious about the idea that Omicron might not be severe. One of them is looking at the virus mutations. A bunch of them in Omicron are associated with more severe outcomes and other variants. Two, there are reports in South Africa that hospitalizations are going up in a way that’s very similar to what Delta did. There’s just so much uncertainty,” Sweat said.

The bottom line, Sweat said, “pay attention to Omicron, worry more about Delta.”

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