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USC former president warns COVID-19 spikes, mutant strains threaten public health efforts

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Harris Pastides, the former University of South Carolina president, speaks at the NCAA Convention in Oxon Hill, Md., on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. Pastides, who is also a Yale University-trained epidemiologist, offered his thoughts on a possible surge of COVID-19 during a talk with the American Medical Association. File/Cliff Owen/AP

The former University of South Carolina president and Yale-trained epidemiologist is advocating for an aggressive vaccination campaign as variants of the virus that cause COVID-19 pose threats to plans to return to normalcy and disease cases rise in other states.

Harry Pastides said during an April 9 guest appearance on the American Medical Association's YouTube channel that some fluctuations in the numbers of cases is typical. 

"There are always some peaks and valleys, even," he said. But increasing numbers of cases in states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and New York raise concern the outbreaks are more than a blip and could be "a sign of worse things to come." 

In South Carolina, case numbers are in a plateau, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. That might not always be the case.

In those states where cases are spiking, Pastides said directing resources to rapid testing and vaccinations is key.

"Get everybody in those communities that are spiking vaccinated," he said. "Do it as quickly as possible."

Variants of the virus are spreading, Pastides said, cause for concern because, at some point, a mutation could arrive that renders the vaccines we have ineffective. He noted viruses are among the most basic forms of life, "and just about the only thing they can do when we are winning a war against them is to mutate." 

That is why it is important to continue physical distancing, masking, vaccinations and other measures to keep the virus at bay, he said. 

Previous to his role as president, Pastides was dean of the university's Arnold School of Public Health. He earned his PhD in epidemiology from Yale University. Pastides stepped down from the presidency at USC in 2019. 

Statewide numbers

New cases reported: 632 confirmed, 392 probable.

Total cases in S.C.: 470,153 confirmed, 90,609 probable.

Percent positive: 4.5 percent.

New deaths reported: 8 confirmed, 5 probable.

Total deaths in S.C.: 8,144 confirmed, 1,104 probable.

Percent of ICU beds filled: 70 percent.

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How does S.C. rank in vaccines administered per 100,000 people?

41st as of April 8, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hardest-hit areas 

In the total number of newly confirmed cases, Richland County (77), Greenville County (76) and Spartanburg County (54) saw the highest totals. 

What about the tri-county?

Charleston County had 49 new cases on April 9, while Berkeley had 14 and Dorchester had 13.

Deaths

Two of the new confirmed deaths reported were patients age 35 to 64, and six were 65 and older.  

Hospitalizations

Of the 506 COVID-19 patients hospitalized as of April 9, 126 were in the ICU and 65 were using ventilators.

What do experts say? 

Dr. Danielle Scheurer, chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina, said she believes hesitancy to take the vaccine is "our biggest hurdle." 

Even among MUSC's staff in Charleston, a third remain unvaccinated. Across MUSC's regional hospitals in Mullins, Florence, Chester and Lancaster, half have not yet taken a vaccine. All are eligible.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Scheurer said.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, covers health care for The Post and Courier. She is also pursuing a master's degree in data science. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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