COVID-19 figures worry SC health experts as cases spread to young adults 

'Things Look Grim'

click to enlarge MUSC prepared for a surge of coronavirus patients in late April

Sam Spence

MUSC prepared for a surge of coronavirus patients in late April

With a new COVID-19 spike in full swing and an increase in the percent of positive tests showing a higher rate of cases, it's likely we won't see an end to the pandemic any time soon. In fact, several South Carolina health experts believe the situation will only get worse.

click to enlarge Mufaro Kanyangarara - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Mufaro Kanyangarara

"What we're seeing right now is something that we weren't expecting," said Mufaro Kanyangarara, an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina. "I think with reopening plans in place, it's not likely that we're going to see significant declines in transmission."

After the lockdown ended amid calls for the economy to reopen, a rise in COVID-19 cases occurred in South Carolina. As of Monday, 58,003 people had been infected in S.C. and 961 had died. In Charleston County, there had been 7,832 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, with the second-highest rate of infection in the state.

On Thursday, state epidemiologist Linda Bell said case numbers could "rise to levels I don't care to imagine" if S.C. does not get its escalating numbers under control. "If we don't take action now, if we don't social distance and wear our masks, then we will see more of our friends, family members and loved ones become ill, hospitalized and even die," she added.

click to enlarge Brian Bossak - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Brian Bossak

Some experts, like College of Charleston public health professor Brian Bossak, don't have a bleak outlook, even though they recognize the numbers can go up.

"It's still going to be an active fall in terms of COVID-19, but at least to me, it's not as bad as it could be," he said. "We're not looking at the Black Death or Ebola, at least not right now."

One of the biggest contributing factors to the pandemic's recent explosion is an increase in the amount of young people who have been infected. "I think this is likely a function of exposure," Bossak said, "People indoors, not wearing masks, at close range, lots of exhalation, et cetera."

In S.C., people ages 21-30 account for over 20 percent of all confirmed cases and teens make up 7.5 percent. Since late June, national trends have indicated young people are a primary reason for the surge of cases.

click to enlarge Linda Bell - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Linda Bell

"While most youth and younger adults with COVID-19 only experience a mild illness, that is not true for all," Bell said. "More importantly, they put older and vulnerable people at risk with whom they might come into contact."

Health experts note that young people often have less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, meaning they can carry it and transfer it to others without realizing they are sick.

Gov. Henry McMaster reiterated those concerns at a press conference Friday. "We are saying, emphatically, it's time for our younger adults to behave like mature adults," he said.

The state's rate of infection has risen higher than any individual country, according to data analyzed by The New York Times last week. S.C.'s rate of positive COVID-19 tests is at 21.2 percent, as of Monday.

The combination of a high infection rate and high number of cases has doctors at MUSC "very concerned," according to Michael Sweat, the Medical University of South Carolina's director for the center of global health. "You can tolerate that kind of high growth rate when there aren't so many cases, but as we're now getting into larger numbers of cases, it can really explode real quick."

If case numbers and the rate of infection stay high, experts believe it could strain local hospitals' capabilities to keep citizens safe.

Michael Sweat - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Michael Sweat

In recent weeks, face mask ordinances have been implemented in Charleston County, Columbia and Greenville. Sweat told the City Paper at the beginning of July the mask ordinance will help lower the rate of infection. "I think this is going to raise their awareness," he said. "I think the fact that it is a policy empowers businesses to uphold that. It's been very awkward for businesses because they were kind of damned if they did and damned if they didn't enforce that."

McMaster has not implemented a statewide mask ordinance, opting to instead encourage local ordinances and statewide rules preventing the sale of alcohol after 11 p.m. to encourage people to go home earlier in the evening.

"I think [face mask ordinances] definitely will have an impact on transmission," Kanyangarara said. "The extent to which that's going to have an impact is going to depend on [the] individual's behaviors and adherence to those ordinances."

"It will certainly help if people actually wear them," Bossak added. "I don't know what the reluctance is — wear the mask."

Health experts continue to beat the same drum they've been pounding since the pandemic began: Wear a face mask, wash your hands and social distance to slow the spread of COVID-19. But, they concede those measures rely on citizens to follow the advice of the experts, and citizens must implement every measure.

When asked if things will get worse before they get better, Kanyangarara said the game changer would be a readily available vaccine. "Given the timeline for the vaccine, it's highly unlikely that we're going to have a vaccine before the end of the year," she said. "We still need to get through the rest of the summer, as well as the fall and the flu season. With that in mind, I would say things look grim."

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