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MUSC expert says South Carolina is ‘beyond the peak’ of third COVID-19 surge

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Dottie's Pharmacy technician Bailey Hart administers a COVID-19 test out of the pharmacy mobile van on Aug. 10, 2021. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

While the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is beginning to decline across the United States, signaling the beginning of the end of the delta variant surge, South Carolina, like many states in the Southeast, continues to observe high coronavirus activity. 

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nationally the seven-day average in cases fell 17 percent from prior weeks. 

There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that South Carolina has turned a corner, too. Between Sept. 15-21, the seven-day average of new infections in the Charleston area decreased by 34 percent. The Midlands region saw a 45 percent decrease from prior weeks, while areas near Lancaster and Florence saw a less than 20 percent decrease.

Michael Sweat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina, said a peak in numbers is evident. 

"I think we are beyond the peak," said Sweat. "If you look at the current wave of COVID-19 cases, we are trending downward much like other states with an initial summer wave who are on track to see declines in cases. However, I do expect to see a spike in the winter season.”

While the numbers are currently lower than prior weeks, Sweat emphasized the drop in cases does not mean COVID-19 isn't still a clear and present danger. 

"There's still a lot of infection and transmission of the virus," said Sweat. "People should adjust their risk-taking accordingly."

According to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, case rates in South Carolina are currently similar to the numbers reported toward the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, when cases were at an all-time high. 

On Dec. 11, 2020, DHEC reported 3,217 newly confirmed and probable cases, and on Dec. 18, the state recorded more than 3,600 cases. The most recent data from DHEC published on Sept. 24 shows more than 3,400 newly confirmed and probable cases and 124 confirmed and probable deaths. 

"This is particularly unfortunate because, unlike late 2020, vaccines to defeat COVID-19 are in high supply and available for anyone who wants to get vaccinated," said Ron Aiken, a spokesman for DHEC. "So we hope to see these increases in cases go down with the help of vaccine and increased masking." 

The percentage of eligible South Carolinians who are vaccinated is lower than the national average, but it is slowly climbing. The latest data from DHEC's vaccination dashboard shows 51.2 percent of all eligible South Carolina residents are completely vaccinated, and close to 60 percent have received at least one shot. That still leaves a large population of eligible residents unvaccinated and at risk of infection and transmission. 

Many among the eligible but unvacccinated group are teenagers and young adults. Currently, those age 12 and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. Earlier this week, vaccine manufactures Pfizer-BioNTech announced that the vaccine was safe for children ages five to 11 years old. Vaccines for children in this age group are expected to be eligible to receive their shots later this fall. 

All three of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna and the one-shot Johnson & Johnson — are still highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, even with the spread of the extra-contagious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or just 55 percent of the population, The Associated Press reported Sept. 24.

Data released by DHEC on Sept. 24 shows more than 12,000 South Carolinians have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

DHEC reported 111 confirmed and 13 probable deaths on Friday, bringing the total number of deaths since March 2020 to 12,080. More than 2,000 of those deaths have been recorded during the third surge of the pandemic. 

Reported Sept. 20 by The Associated Press, COVID-19 has now killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic did — approximately 675,000.

The delta-fueled surge in new infections may have peaked, but U.S. deaths still are running at over 1,900 a day on average, the highest level since early March, and the country’s overall toll stood at close to 674,000 as of Sept. 20, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, though the real number is believed to be higher.

Winter may bring a new surge, though it's expected to be less deadly than last year’s, according to The University of Washington model.

The 1918-19 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans in a U.S. population one-third the size of what it is today, according to AP. It struck down 50 million victims globally at a time when the world had one-quarter as many people as it does now. Global deaths from COVID-19 now stand at more than 4.6 million.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Follow Zharia Jeffries on Twitter @ZhariaJ26.

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