Flu activity continues to decline in South Carolina, dropping from a peak that led the nation just weeks ago, new numbers show.
But COVID-19 outbreaks and hospitalizations are up, and there are a host of other viruses keeping the general misery level high throughout the state, doctors said.
Overall visits for influenza-like illness dropped to 8.8 percent for the week that ended Jan. 13 — a 35 percent drop from the previous week and a 150 percent decrease from just two weeks ago, according to Post and Courier analysis of data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
While acknowledging the trend, flu seasons tend to go through “peaks and valleys,” so it bears watching to see “do our numbers go back up or do they stay trending down, which would be fabulous,” said Dr. Martha Buchanan, lead medical consultant to DHEC. “We’re not sure yet what is going to happen.”
COVID cases do appear to be increasing. DHEC recorded 56 COVID-related outbreaks in nursing homes for the week that ended Jan. 13, up from 45 the week before, although a single case can count as an outbreak in such settings. The number of new COVID patients hospitalized in South Carolina increased from 481 to 539 for the week that ended Jan. 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Viral activity seems to be down from the flurry in December “but it’s certainly still going around,” said Dr. Danielle Metzler, a primary care physician with Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “I feel like the ones I am seeing are more COVID than anything.”
Many of the patients share the same constellation of symptoms — a cough that last for weeks, congestion, fever, sore throat — that are hallmarks of many viruses, she said.
But it is important for folks to get tested for what they specifically have because there are good antiviral treatments for flu and for COVID-19, said Dr. Stephen Thacker, a pediatric infectious disease physician and associate professor of pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina.
“We have some largely effective strategies to treat these folks with flu and COVID-19 that can really change the trajectory of whether you end up in the hospital,” he said.
Vaccination rates are still low for both flu and especially COVID-19, the doctors acknowledge. But the same prevention strategies would apply regardless of the virus, the doctors said: washing hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, and helping to prevent infecting others by staying home if sick or wearing a mask in public.
Even as the reported numbers of illness are waning, “I feel like I am still seeing quite a bit of sick people,” Metzler said.
And there is no guarantee that continues, Thacker said.
“Flu season is always an unknown,” he said. “There’s a chance that we see a decline and then have an uptick in the coming months.”