Beaufort Memorial Hospital is enjoying a reprieve from COVID-19.
It’s good news for the pandemic-weary Lowcountry, which was hit hard this past summer by the super-contagious delta variant.
“We’re still at the bottom part of the last peak,” said Dr. Kurt Gambla, the hospital’s chief medical officer, in a Thursday interview. “Historically, we’re about as low as we’ve been since the very beginning of this thing.”
The hospital, as of Thursday, was treating only five or so coronavirus inpatients, Gambla said. None of those people was in the intensive care unit or on a ventilator, he added.
The staff “is just catching their breath right now,” Gambla said. “We’re very grateful.”
But Gambla also stressed that the hospital’s doctors and nurses remain nervous about the weeks ahead. Beaufort County was battered by a devastating wave of coronavirus infections during the 2020 holiday season. And the new omicron variant, which was first identified in southern Africa the week of Thanksgiving, is “the big wild card,” Gambla said.
Omicron contains an unusually high number of mutations. The variant is concerning health experts around the world and has been linked to a surge of cases in South Africa. The United States, as of about 1 p.m. Friday, had confirmed 10 omicron infections. None was in South Carolina.
“At this time, we do know very little about this variant,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, the state’s director of public health, during a Wednesday briefing with reporters.
Scientists are racing to better understand omicron and are cautioning residents not to panic.
The new variant’s mutations, though, have already sparked considerable alarm among infectious disease specialists. South Africa is experiencing a rise in coronavirus reinfections as omicron spreads. The variant may be able to sidestep part of the body’s vaccine-induced immune response. And it also could be very contagious.
Traxler said there’s still a lack of data on omicron’s clinical presentation, transmissibility and disease severity, among other things.
One doctor in South Africa recently provided anecdotal evidence that omicron infections produce mild symptoms, but another expert has stressed that the ongoing outbreak in the country’s Gauteng province was initially driven by coronavirus transmission among young people, who are less prone to severe disease.
The province’s COVID-19 resurgence also began recently, meaning hospitalizations may start to mount over the next few weeks.
Gambla, of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, said he hopes omicron will cause only mild cases in the Lowcountry.
And Traxler stressed that South Carolinians know how to prepare for omicron’s arrival.
“Regardless of omicron or delta or any other variant,” she said, “the actions you can take to protect yourself, and protect others around you, remain the same. Vaccinations, masks, testing and physical distancing. Those public health recommendations, along with isolation and quarantine when needed, do not change.”
The delta threat
Even though omicron is concerning, delta still is the dominant variant in the United States.
“Everybody’s looking at omicron because that’s the big shiny thing dangling in front of us,” Gambla said.
Delta, he said, is “far and away the biggest threat.” (For now.)
Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s coronavirus inpatients, Gambla added, remain “overwhelmingly” unvaccinated. That has not changed for months.
“Of course with the holidays, don’t let your guard down. Do all the things that we’ve said from the beginning,” Gambla said. “Mask (up). If you can avoid travel, great, especially if you’re unvaccinated. Avoid crowds, avoid indoor gatherings. ... Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”
Here are the latest Beaufort County coronavirus numbers from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control:
New cases reported Friday: 14 confirmed, 8 probable
New cases reported Thursday: 16 confirmed, 6 probable
New cases reported Wednesday: 21 confirmed, 5 probable
New deaths reported from Wednesday to Friday: 0 confirmed, 0 probable
Seven-day average of new cases: 10 confirmed infections per day
Two-week incidence rate: 109.3 cases per 100,000 people
Vaccination rate: 54% of residents have been fully vaccinated
ZIP code data since July 1
Bluffton ZIP code, 29910: 2,881 cases
Hilton Head Island ZIP code, 29926: 1,117 cases
Hilton Head Island ZIP code, 29928: 467 cases
Okatie ZIP code, 29909: 786 cases
Beaufort ZIP code, 29902: 1,437 cases
St. Helena Island ZIP code, 29920: 447 cases