Doctors: South Carolina also experiencing ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 9:45 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2021 at 9:46 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - As South Carolina’s vaccination rate among all those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine still sits below 50%, for both those fully vaccinated and those receiving at least one dose, cases and hospitalizations are ticking up.

Last week, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky described the current stage of the pandemic in the United States as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” a term President Joe Biden later repeated.

Doctors in Columbia said that’s how they would characterize the situation in South Carolina right now as well.

“More than 92% of the people who are experiencing new infections of COVID in South Carolina are among people who are not fully vaccinated,” Assistant State Epidemiologist Dr. Jane Kelly said.

Epidemiologists like Kelly evaluate and get a sense of the virus’ spread by looking at cases per 100,000 people.

Two weeks ago, Kelly said there were 19 cases per 100,000 people, and last week, that number increased to 39.

This week, she said it has jumped to 62.4 cases.

Dr. Divya Ahuja, an infectious disease physician with Prisma Health in Columbia, said more of those adults are showing up at the hospital, young and old of all backgrounds. He said and many seemingly healthy otherwise.

“But the common thread across all these patients is across the board that they’re unvaccinated, and some of them are very sick,” he said.

Kelly believes the uptick is not just because of the Fourth of July holiday, though DHEC did anticipate some increase presenting itself after the holiday weekend.

She said other factors are contributing, including the presence of the delta variant in South Carolina. However, DHEC doesn’t know at this point what proportion of the state’s cases are the result of the variant because DHEC only currently samples random tests, and not every test, for variance.

“We are working with partners to do that, but we suspect that it will increase and spread in numbers unless we do something about it,” Kelly said.

As the delta variant spreads more quickly, doctors fear that more spread will lead to more severe illness, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.

On July 2, DHEC reported 108 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in South Carolina, while on Monday, data from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that 243 inpatient beds in the state were occupied by people with the virus, a 125% increase.

“Once hospitalizations start increasing, very soon we’re going to see death rates increasing also because there is usually that lag phase,” Ahuja said.

DHEC analyzed the number of COVID deaths in South Carolina in the first two weeks of June, according to Kelly, and found 100% of those deaths were among people who were not fully vaccinated.

While DHEC reports less than 8% of new COVID cases are among those fully vaccinated, Kelly said those people typically have other conditions that weaken their immune system’s response, such as undergoing chemotherapy or a kidney transplant.

“The reason we vaccinate is not to prevent mild disease,” Kelly said. “The reason we vaccinate is to keep people out of the hospital and out of the morgue, and that’s what this vaccine will do.”

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