COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After a couple of months of a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations in South Carolina, a state health leader is concerned this trend might be changing.
“I think people are feeling optimistic because we’ve had decreasing trends over the past nine weeks but it’s starting to flatten out. It’s plateaued in South Carolina,” Assistant State Epidemiologist with the Department of Health and Environmental Control Dr. Jane Kelly said.
Kelly pointed to a slight uptick in South Carolina’s rate of new cases per 100,000 people as a warning sign.
“We are seeing increases, dramatic increases in some cases, in other places in the United States…Michigan comes to mind. So we are worried that we just had a holiday weekend, people getting together with families and feeling a little bit looser about those mitigation measures around wearing a mask we are concerned that we’re going to have a surge,” Dr. Kelly said.
The timing of another surge isn’t clear to Dr. Kelly, but she anticipates it could come in about two weeks after accounting for the recent uptick in travel and the virus’ incubation period.
“What we have our fingers crossed about is that maybe it will just be a small increase, not a dramatic one,” she said.
According to TSA, more than 1.5 million people flew over the holiday weekend, roads were congested at times, and people across the state gathered to celebrate the Easter holiday. And with temperatures on the rise, more businesses opening, and people continuing to go on spring vacations, she said the more contagious variants of the virus could cause a surge in cases.
“If they’re more contagious, and you have more cases, you’ll get more death, hospitalizations, and deaths just because you’ve got larger numbers of cases,” she said.
Dr. Kelly said the variants of the virus bind more easily to cells and attach tighter to receptors on our cells than the original strain of COVID-19, which in turn makes these new variants spread easier.
Thankfully, Kelly noted, the vaccines are effective against known variants of the virus.
“They might not protect against mild disease, but they will protect against severe disease,” she said.
However, vaccine hesitancy remains a problem in particular among people in rural communities, minority populations, and young people across the state.
She said the reasons young people, in particular, may be reluctant to get the vaccine are complicated and could vary from a belief that young, healthy people aren’t at risk of any potential impacts of the virus, fear of side effects, or a false belief that you can’t get COVID twice.
“If you had COVID-19, [the vaccine] gives you higher levels of antibodies than the infection and it’ll help protect you against these new variants,” Dr. Kelly said.
Not only are many young people avoiding being a part of the solution to this pandemic, but many are also a part of the problem.
According to data from DHEC, 17% of all COVID-19 cases in South Carolina in the past month are among people ages 21 to 30, which is the highest of any age group.
Kelly thinks social events at the end of the school year like parties and graduation celebrations may also lead to a surge in cases among younger South Carolinians, which could increase the likelihood of a state and nationwide spike as students leave their college campuses for the year and head home.
There is a silver lining, though, Dr. Kelly said.
“I am cautiously optimistic that this fall will start to look more normal, and so much depends on what happens in the next coming weeks, with people getting vaccinated and avoiding a big surge that only serves to spread these variants further,” she said.