Govt offers new batch of free COVID tests as cases rise again in Tri-County

May 17, 2022
Box with COVID tests

The federal government’s offer of a third round of at-home COVID tests comes at a good time for the Charleston Tri-county area. “We’re clearly on an upward trajectory,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D., leader of the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence Project. 

The weekly update from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control shows the Tri-county area, which includes Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, had a 26% increase compared with the previous week. That’s on top of a 121% increase the week before that.

“I’m struck by the numbers, particularly when you take into account that there’s a vast undercounting happening because of self-testing. And I don’t know what the multiplier on that is,” Sweat said.

“My instincts would say that a pretty significant minority of cases are actually getting reported. So when you look at that number and it’s 21, as in 21 cases per day per 100,000 people in the Tri-county area, it may well be four or five times that number.”

He blamed the Omicron subvariant BA2.12.1 and its sublineages for the increase. Sublineages are the offspring the subvariant produces as it changes. “It’s mutating toward transmissibility. It’s very contagious. So that’ll mean you could get a big spike, and then it’ll drop.”

This marks the first time we’ve had easy access to home tests during a COVID increase. During previous waves, people had to go to test sites that would report the results to DHEC.

“It wasn’t until late in the Omicron surge that self-testing became sort of widely used,” Sweat said.We’re flying in the dark a little bit this time, since there’s so much self-testing.”

Sweat said if people don’t know how many cases there are, they may not realize there’s a problem. And he’s concerned about what’s happening elsewhere in the U.S.

“Looking at New York and Massachusetts and Maine and New Hampshire, those states are having some big numbers. And they’re also in that situation where there’s a lot of self-testing going on. Connecticut has a rate of 77 cases per day per 100,000 people. That’s up there. If you assume only half of the cases are getting documented – and I don’t think it really is half – that’s 144 cases per day. That’s a big number. That’s like the numbers we had in the Delta wave last summer, you know, and it’s still growing.” 

Fortunately, while hospitalizations are going up, it’s not at the same rate as earlier waves, thanks to vaccinations, booster shots and the fact that a lot of people have already had COVID. But Sweat said that doesn’t mean you should assume you won’t get sick and it won’t have consequences. 

“We’re in a new world in a way. We see a lot of infections, and we’re not seeing as much hospitalization impact, and the death rate’s quite low right now. But that takes a long time to play out. The risk of long COVID is a really serious thing for our society. It’s life-changing for people. So I really think people ought to heed the warning.”

He encouraged people who have been vaccinated to get booster shots, which increase their protection. “It’ll keep you from ending up in the hospital and dying,” Sweat said. 

Other advice: “Avoid crowded places and wear your mask to the grocery store and maybe skip going to the bar and do some testing before events. That’s what you do when things get bad. We don’t have to do them forever, but we’re moving into that period where, when you see those growth rates, there’s just a lot of transmission.”