COVID-19

MUSC President Dr. David Cole addresses the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the Charleston area at a press conference Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Brad Nettles/Staff

Saturday was a typical Charleston summer evening — folks strolled along The Battery, crowded into downtown bars and stood in line outside Hyman’s.

In other words, you’d never know we’re in the middle of a pandemic.

And that’s what Dr. David Cole is worried about. The president of the Medical University of South Carolina fears some people have forgotten about the risk of contracting the coronavirus since the lockdown ended ... which is also just about the time our national attention turned to protests, civil rights and statues.

But the virus is not only still around, it’s surging in South Carolina. The COVID-19 growth rate in downtown Charleston is about 14%. And yes, that’s bad. It’s one of the highest concentrations in the state.

“At this rate, in five weeks you have 27,000 cases in the tri-county area,” Cole says. “That’s not tenable. We’re pushing beyond reasonable, and are going to need people to be more responsible. We need to be more accountable.”

Dr. Cole is not an alarmist, he’s a realist. And this isn’t politics, it’s science and math. Transmission of the virus is up significantly across the South, and everyone needs to pay attention.

Expect Cole and MUSC to keep reminding us of that. Both have been invaluable to the state’s response to the pandemic. The medical university has been at the forefront of this crisis, developing and administering much of the local testing, helping other communities identify and contain hotspots and designing new methods for risk notification.

The hospital is much better prepared to combat the coronavirus than it was when this mess hit in March, and it’s a good thing. The infection rate is going up here in part because people in their 20s and 30s are spreading the disease, and they move around a lot more than older folks.

Cole says younger folks probably figure they’re young, healthy and the virus won’t kill ’em. That may be right, he says, but the problem is they eventually pass it on to grandma or Aunt Sally.

To combat that dangerous cycle, MUSC has a pretty easy request. Pay attention to healthcare advice.

“The simplest thing is, people should wear masks,” Cole stresses. “Asymptomatic people are walking around, and they are following guidelines imperfectly.”

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That is exactly what’s happening, and some people are stubbornly clueless. Or they’re just being extremely selfish.

Yes, the people who complained the most about the inconvenience of sheltering at home and a shuttered economy are now making it harder for businesses to stay open. This past weekend, Hall’s Chophouse announced it would shut down for a while, and other restaurants that had planned to open simply haven’t.

Too many people out there obliviously spreading this deadly disease.

Unfortunately, the virus — like everything these days — has become partisan. Except it isn’t. COVID-19 is not a hoax or a political ploy, and it’s not the flu. There are vaccines for the flu.

And until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, which is probably not coming before next year, Cole says there are going to be spikes in transmission. Taking precautions to minimize those spikes is the only way to have anything approaching normal. He suggests we implement a warning system, such as Los Angeles has for smog.

We’d be on red alert right now, by the way.

MUSC is developing a risk notification app to let folks know when they’d been around someone carrying the virus. But such a system would require approval from the state Legislature ... and public participation.

Most folks assume no politician would risk the blowback of ordering another shutdown, and that’s true — to a point. But they’ll have no choice if this keeps running rampant and hospital ICUs are overwhelmed.

Cole says MUSC is prepared to handle an uptick in cases without going into crisis mode right now; there is capacity. But that could quickly change if more people don’t suddenly get more responsible.

“At some point there will be consequences,” Cole says. “If we don’t do as much as we can, we’ll be too far behind the gun when the wave is hitting us.”

MUSC has been right on this from the start. It’s time to start listening.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.