9 charts that will help you understand SC’s omicron surge

Sam Ogozalek/sogozalek@islandpacket.com
·7 min read

The omicron variant is making it more difficult than ever to understand the severity and trajectory of South Carolina’s coronavirus outbreak.

Infections are surging to record heights, but experts say the ultra contagious variant seems to be milder than previous strains of the coronavirus.

Hospitals are worried about an increase in COVID-19 patients, but it appears that infected people are less likely to develop life-threatening pneumonia.

What is going on?

Here are nine charts that will help you visualize the Palmetto State’s wave of omicron infections.

Be ‘very, very cautious,’ expert says

While COVID-19 cases have surged to an unprecedented level over the past four weeks, the corresponding increase in hospitalizations has mirrored what South Carolina previously saw in summer 2021 during the delta variant surge.

Think of the various surges using analogies to the atmosphere: Infections have now reached the thermosphere (where the International Space Station orbits the Earth). During previous surges, cases rose only as far as the mesosphere (where the highest clouds form).

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, recently hit the top of the troposphere (where most weather occurs), but that’s close to where they were during last summer’s wave of delta cases.

The number of COVID-19 patients has not jumped into the mesosphere.

This is not all good news: The delta surge was extremely stressful for health care systems in South Carolina.

Protecting hospitals from COVID-19 surges is crucial because everyone’s medical care can suffer if intensive care units are packed with infectious patients and emergency departments are full of people seeking coronavirus tests.

“ED visits have increased ... a lot of them are people just wanting to get their tests done,” said Dr. Divya Ahuja, an infectious disease expert at Prisma Health, the state’s largest health care system, during a briefing with reporters Wednesday. “Those with heart attacks, strokes are unable to find their way in because there’s a long line just trying to get into the ED.”

Let’s take a closer look at hospitalizations:

This is what experts have been worried about. While omicron seems to impact the lungs less than delta, and produces milder disease, the sheer number of cases this year has been staggering, and hospitalizations are rising much like they did in August 2021.

But what about deaths? Here’s what we know:

So far, deaths have not dramatically spiked, but it’s too early to know whether that trend will hold in South Carolina.

It’s unclear if the Palmetto State’s surge of omicron infections has peaked.

During both the delta surge and winter 2021 surge, coronavirus deaths peaked roughly three weeks after cases peaked.

Ahuja, of Prisma Health, thinks the state’s peak in omicron cases may occur sometime late this week.

“This is the time,” he said, “to continue to be very, very cautious.”

There’s reason to hope, though, that omicron’s death toll will not be as high as delta’s.

First, omicron surges seem to recede quickly. Just look at South Africa’s epidemic.

Lior Rennert, a biostatistician at Clemson University, has predicted that the Palmetto State will return to its “pre-omicron” levels of coronavirus transmission at some point in February.

And second, a recent study found that during South Africa’s omicron wave, severe COVID-19 outcomes in one province “were reduced mostly due to protection conferred by prior infection and/or vaccination, but intrinsically reduced virulence may account for an approximately 25% reduced risk of severe hospitalization or death compared to Delta.”

ICU capacity is the ‘No. 1 concern’

COVID-19 patients are filling ICU beds again. Such warnings have become a common refrain from health officials during the pandemic.

But why is ICU capacity important?

Melanie Matney, chief operating officer at the S.C. Hospital Association, put it this way:

“We can create additional general acute care beds. You can do that through an alternate care site pretty easily. We’ve done it before,” Matney said. “ICU-level beds are much more difficult to recreate.”

ICU beds are reserved for the sickest of patients who need a significant amount of care, such as those critically injured in car crashes.

When ICUs are at or near capacity, and filled with COVID-19 patients, that leaves less room for others with serious ailments and wears out health care workers.

It’s also expensive to add more ICU beds at a hospital.

“There are some companies that charge millions of dollars to create additional ICU capacity,” Matney said.

Here’s what’s happening in South Carolina right now:

At the moment, the number of coronavirus patients in state ICUs is trending up, much like it did during the winter 2021 surge, when vaccines were just beginning to roll out.

An average of 361 adults with COVID-19, as of Jan. 16, were being treated in ICUs every day.

One year ago, that average was 441 adults.

Who are these patients?

Dr. Steve Shelton, the Midlands incident commander for Prisma Health’s coronavirus response, on Wednesday said that 79% of the health care system’s COVID-19 hospitalizations were unvaccinated people.

The good news: Matney said COVID-19 patients are now staying in hospital beds for shorter lengths of time.

(The state does not publish data on “incidental” coronavirus patients. Those are people admitted to hospitals for reasons other than COVID-19 who test positive for the pathogen.)

Russell Baxley, CEO of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, a medical center in the state’s Lowcountry, in early January said hospitalized COVID-19 patients were spending an average of roughly three to four days at the hospital instead of seven to eight days, which was typical last year as delta swept across the state.

“It doesn’t cause as much sickness, but it is more transmissible,” Matney said of omicron.

ICU capacity, though, is still Matney’s “No. 1 concern.”

“That’s something that’s always in the back of mind,” she said. “To be over 80% in ICU capacity is frightening.”

South Carolina has regularly crossed that threshold. Just look to January, August and September of last year.

The state, as of Jan. 16, was inching toward that benchmark again:

The percentage of all staffed inpatient beds being used in the Palmetto State, meanwhile, has fluctuated less dramatically during the pandemic.

Matney, though, suspects that South Carolina’s bed utilization rates will still break previous COVID-19 records during the omicron surge:

“You’re much more likely to get this one (omicron) than prior variants,” Matney said.

‘We just need to protect them’

There’s recently been shocking news headlines about a spike in pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations.

How serious is this issue?

In comparison to adults, fewer children with COVID-19 are currently admitted in hospitals.

But let’s take a closer look at that data:

The number of hospitalized kids who are 17 or younger has skyrocketed during the omicron surge, far surpassing the number of such admissions during last year’s winter surge, when all children were still ineligible for vaccines.

Dr. Brannon Traxler, the state’s director of public health, on Wednesday attributed the recent spike to omicron’s “genetic makeup” and less masking among kids.

Dr. Anna-Kathryn Burch, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Prisma Health, meanwhile, said that South Carolina’s overwhelming surge of coronavirus cases is naturally leading to a higher number of serious infections among children.

The Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia, as of Wednesday, was treating 23 kids with COVID-19, Burch said. Only one had been vaccinated, she said.

Three of the children were on breathing machines called ventilators.

Kids under the age of 5 are still ineligible for vaccines. And only 10.3% of children ages 5 to 11 in South Carolina have been fully vaccinated, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“We just need to protect them,” Matney said.

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