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Number of coronavirus cases in SC projected to flatten even as testing ramps up

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Swabs used to test for the coronavirus are ready for patients at the Roper St. Francis drive-through testing site on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston in March. As more tests are administered, the state health department is able to paint a more accurate picture of disease prevalence in South Carolina. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The number of weekly coronavirus cases is projected to hold steady in South Carolina, even as the number of tests completed each week significantly ramps up. 

Because testing has become more widespread, the state health department is able to better gauge the prevalence of COVID-19 in South Carolina.

"That's great news," said Dr. Ed O'Bryan, executive director of MUSC Health Solutions. 

It's more encouraging, he explained, for 1 percent of 2,000 people to test positive, than it would be for 10 percent of 200 people to test positive, even though the number of positive tests diagnosed in each scenario is the same. 

"We’re looking at that percent positive," O'Bryan said. 

In mid-April, the percentage of positive tests, among all tests conducted in the state, averaged above 10 percent. In early May, it averaged above 5 percent. This week, it is trending below 4 percent. 

"When the percent positive is high, it may indicate that there isn't enough testing being performed to capture how much disease is in the community and testing may be focused on people who are more severely ill," according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. "When the percent positive is low, it may indicate that more widespread testing is being performed and the percent positive may more accurately reflect how much disease is present in the community."

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For the week of May 17-23, DHEC anticipates 1,050 positive cases will be newly reported across the state. Next week, the total is projected to be 1,024 cases, and the following week, the total should be an estimated 1,000 positive cases. 

By June 6, DHEC projects that the total number of cases reported in South Carolina this year will top 11,800. By comparison, DHEC reports there have been 6,711 lab-confirmed tests of the flu this season. 

Flu activity across the state has dropped significantly since February. COVID-19 cases appear to have flattened, but the accuracy of the disease curve is harder to assess with coronavirus because testing during the disease's early days was largely sporadic and slow. 

O'Bryan estimates that MUSC is testing 2,000 people a week, and expects that number to grow starting next week as testing capacity increases. 

As businesses and public spaces across the state start reopening, O'Bryan said he considered the next three weeks critical. If people continue following social distancing guidelines, the disease curve will continue to flatten, he said. If not, the disease could spike again. 

"The businesses need to take it really seriously," he said. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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