CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a late summer COVID-19 surge in the Carolinas, viral metrics are, once again, on the decline, prompting the million-dollar question: Are we turning the corner in this pandemic?
Health officials and doctors say the answer is complicated.
Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease specialist with Novant Health, reminds there are several wildcard factors, but coronavirus variants and vaccination rates rise to the top of the list. Right now, the delta variant reigns supreme in U.S. infections, and it has for months. So far, no other variants, pre-existing or emerging have come close to dethroning it.
"I think we're on the downswing of the fourth wave. I think we can say that with a lot of confidence," Priest said. "If you look at national models, we'll continue to have a downward trend into the spring."
What happens after that, he says, is still quite murky. Doctors say the current declines are courtesy of rising vaccination rates, public health measures and safety protocols, and natural immunity from a recent surge of infections. How long that immunity will last is still unknown.
Dr. Brannon Traxler, Public Health Director for South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control, notes that the Carolinas have been here before, enjoying a decrease in viral spread, only to be crushed again under another surge.
"We have seen this happen a few times before in this pandemic and have seen cases and hospitalizations jump back up," Traxler said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, viral spread in both Carolinas is considered high, with a handful of counties between the two states in substantial spread, which is the second-highest tier.
However, cases and hospitalizations have been dropping for about a month.
In North Carolina, coronavirus-related patient counts are down about 40% from their most recent peak early last month. The average daily case increase is down nearly 50% over the same period of time. Close to 70% of the vaccine-eligible population has at least one dose.
While this holiday season will be slightly less guarded compared to that of the year before, health officials warn that the situation does not warrant completely dropping COVID-19 defenses.
SCDHEC has offered up a few points of guidance when planning fall and winter activities:
- Do not attend social gatherings if you have any symptoms or have tested positive in the last 10 days, or if you have been exposed and instructed to quarantine in the last 14 days
- Wear masks, especially indoors, and practice social distancing, hand washing, and limit contact with shared items at gatherings
- Host and attend events outdoors instead of inside, when possible
- Wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor public spaces, like packed football stadiums
- Most importantly, get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible
Trick-or-treating has gotten the green light this year, but Traxler says it should be limited to smaller groups. Cloth masks, not costume masks, will be important for indoor settings and close contact outdoors, particularly for those youngest groups, still not eligible for the vaccine.
"Rather than have a bunch of kids' hands reaching into a bucket of candy, (have) potentially somebody, one person who's just washed or sanitized their hands passing it out," Traxler said.
While the months ahead still have a big question mark looming over, Priest said there is one fact that can be counted on.
"I do know that the more of us that are protected and vaccinated, the more likely we are to have the worst behind us," Priest said.
Traxler reminds us that the solution to the pandemic will have to come from all around the world.
"One state, even one as great as ours, can't end a global pandemic, and this is really a worldwide issue," Traxler said. "However, our goal is to make certain that South Carolina is absolutely doing its part to end the pandemic."