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SC health experts say the peak of coronavirus is a few weeks away

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Virus Outbreak South Carolina (copy)

MUSC health care providers wear protective suiting as they get ready to see patients at the hospital's drive-thru tent for patients who are being tested for COVID-19 at Citadel Mall. File/Mic Smith/AP

As coronavirus cases in South Carolina continue to climb week over week, experts at the state health department predict weekly totals will keep growing until at least May. 

Between April 26 and May 2, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control expects nearly 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 to be diagnosed, up from a projected total of 1,370 this week. The agency expects the number of cumulative cases in South Carolina to top 8,600 by early May and that peak "hospital resource use" will be seen on April 30.

The number of projected deaths will likely follow a similar curve, the agency reports online. DHEC estimates the number of daily deaths due to COVID-19 will peak on May 2, with 16 deaths expected to be declared on that day. To date, more than 100 people in South Carolina have died from the disease. DHEC expects 680 people in the state to die by early August. 

There is a silver lining though. DHEC officials believe that the cumulative case rate in South Carolina will still be considerably lower at its projected peak in early May than what has been observed in other states where the virus is more prevalent. 

Projections show DHEC expects the cumulative case rate in South Carolina to be 170 cases per 100,000 residents on May 2. By contrast, on April 11, New York's cumulative case rate topped 800 cases per 100,000 residents. New Jersey's rate approached 600 and Louisiana has reported its cumulative case rate at nearly 400. 

"I'm extremely happy that that looks like it's not going to happen (here) at the moment," said Dr. Chris McLain, chief physician officer at Roper St. Francis. But he stressed that social distancing measures will be equally important to adhere to on the down side of the disease curve to prevent further spread. The idea of "flattening the curve" seems to have worked locally, he said. "The down side is it changes a sprint into a marathon." 

The Medical University of South Carolina's expectations of the disease curve basically match DHEC's projections. The greatest strain on its hospital will come at the end of April or the start of May, said Dr. David Cole, MUSC’s president. And he expects the peak to be “more manageable” because of social distancing measures ordered by city and state officials.

In the Charleston tri-county area, the pace of new cases has slowed substantially. While the number of infections here had been doubling every three to four days, the number is now doubling about every 10 days.

That’s a “fantastic sign” after the virus’s early spread here raised alarms, said Michael Sweat, who is heading an MUSC project to monitor and forecast the spread of COVID-19 locally.

But the improvements could be wiped out if social distancing measures are dropped too soon. MUSC officials on Wednesday said state and local leaders should ensure that hospitals have the equipment and staffing they need before restarting the economy, and that should only happen when the number of new infections has slowed to a trickle.

“There is a significant risk that a second COVID-19 wave will emerge as a result of relaxed social distancing restrictions that could reverse any economic progress with crippling impact,” Cole said.

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Reporter Thad Moore contributed to this article. Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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