A scientist's perspective on increase in COVID deaths

January 20, 2023
Red coronavirus particle on a yellow background. The virus is on a black line that goes up and down and then flat to show that life has ended.
COVID deaths are on the rise in South Carolina, but they're nowhere near the highs we saw earlier in the pandemic.

When the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control reported 68 new COVID deaths statewide in its weekly update, a scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina who tracks such data took notice.

“That was a lot. Because we were down here to around five or six deaths a week. It was much lower, and it's gone up a lot. They're showing a 62% increase over the past four weeks,” said Michael Sweat, Ph.D.

Sweat leads MUSC’s COVID-19 tracking team and serves as a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sweat is also a former research scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DHEC issued a statement saying its COVID data collection has been affected by the holidays, causing numbers to rise as more information becomes available. For example, it said that while it announced three COVID deaths for the week of Dec. 18-24, new information bumps that number to 41.

“They're reliant upon health care providers to report this. So there's a lag in that. People have to process that information and submit it, but then during the holidays, it sounds like it slows down even more,” Sweat said.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

But a lag in reporting isn’t the only factor driving the death rate. The state has also seen a spike in cases, according to DHEC. “The goal is to prevent this increase from continuing, and we can accomplish this by following masking recommendations and staying updated on vaccinations and boosters. We encourage all South Carolinians to do their part so we can bring these elevated numbers back down and prevent our families and friends from suffering severe cases of COVID-19,” the agency said in a statement.

Sweat agreed. But he also offered some pandemic perspective. “It is news. I just think it's important to think about the big picture, not just this big increase. We were getting 500 deaths a week for a short period in 2021 following a surge. That was during those high peak periods. And even last year, we were getting lots of mortality.”

But while this week’s numbers are well below 500, they’re still concerning, Sweat said. He attributed them to holiday travel and gatherings. “It’s not good. Seventy is not good. I think this signals that the latest wave was bigger than we thought. Deaths are very lagging. They take weeks and weeks to happen. People end up in the hospital, and they hang on for a month – or sometimes not. But it's quite a lagging indicator by weeks.”

Sweat said most people dying from COVID are age 70 and up. “I think the right way to go is to watch the numbers. During these periods, you want to be careful. And when things calm down again – it looks like they're moving in that direction – you can ease up. But we're not quite there yet; I still think there's a lot of transmission happening.”

He also encouraged people to consider their personal health profiles. “Are you at risk? Are you on chemotherapy? Do you have a lot of co-morbidities that could make you not do well? If that’s the case, I'd be careful all the time. And do you live with somebody, or are you close to somebody that you could affect that way? Those things come into your risk calculations. But you can still live your life. You just have to adapt to this as it comes and goes.”

You can find Sweat’s team’s weekly update here. It tracks COVID case rates and trends and offers analysis from a data-driven point of view.

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