‘I do believe we’re likely approaching the peak, if not already there’

January 20, 2022
Woman standing on a peak surrounded by coronavirus particles.
The Omicron surge has led to the biggest COVID-19 case numbers of the pandemic. iStock

The summit of the Omicron surge in the Charleston Tri-county area may be in sight, says the leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 tracking team. “I do believe we're likely approaching the peak, if not already there.”

But Michael Sweat, Ph.D., isn’t ready to call it. “It's just a little too soon. I also think there's a chance for a bounce, with numbers going back up again if people let down their guard. The key message is ride it out. I think in a few weeks, we're going to be at a much lower rate.”

The rate right now is sky-high, well over the pandemic’s previous peaks. Sweat’s team rates COVID’s impact on the Charleston area “severe” in its latest online assessment. “I’d keep my vigilance up because we're at a very high transmission rate, even though it's potentially dropping. I think that so many people have been getting infected that Omicron is just running out of opportunities.”

Sweat said the variant has followed a pattern in places it hit earlier than here, one he expects will repeat in the Charleston area. “It seems like about four to six weeks, it gets up to 300 or 400 cases per 100,000 people or higher and then drops.”

The Tri-county area, which includes Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, hit 416 cases per 100,000 people on Jan. 15. Sweat said the Omicron variant, whose severity has been called “milder but not mild” compared with other COVID strains, is infecting so many that a growing number of people are ending up in hospitals. 

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

“We have more people in the hospital now than we’ve ever had with COVID. But the good news is the number of days in the hospital for people with COVID at MUSC is down to four. It was historically about seven or eight. And the number of days in ICU is down to three. That's usually been higher. It got up to 11 days in the past. The amount of time people stay on ventilators is also way down.”

But some are still dying from COVID every day, as the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control notes in its COVID dashboard. “A lot of models are suggesting we're going to have a lot of mortality in the coming weeks, as mortality lags cases by several weeks.”

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 research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraged people to get booster shots. “Boosting is just so important, and I believe only 16% of the people who've been vaccinated have gotten a booster. It's so protective against serious illness. I really think it's a missed opportunity that we are facing.”

As for what we’re facing once the Omicron wave ebbs, Sweat has a prediction. “I'm optimistic about the spring. I'm just kind of curious what'll happen going forward from that. I think we're going to see a fairly long period of low rates.”

But he also has a big concern. “The question is will there be other variants that aren’t so mild? There's no reason to think that a new variant will be less severe. It could be way more severe. I think the lesson of all this is the unpredictability. We're dealing with a complicated virus.”

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