ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County health officials are working day and night to prepare for an expected surge of COVID-19 cases they believe is going to hit the county in 10-14 days.

“It’s like somebody threw some big stones in a pond and the ripples are ... coming to us in the next couple of weeks,” Berrien County Board Chairman Mac Elliott said Thursday during the board’s first virtual meeting on Zoom, which was broadcast live on YouTube.

Berrien County Health Officer Nicki Britten gave commissioners a rundown of the situation across the county, including:

More than 700 people are self-isolating in the county based on contact tracing from the 40 people (including one who died) who tested positive for the virus;

local hotels could be taken over as field hospitals or places where people can self-isolate, if need be;

Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph has opened its new pavilion early to increase hospital capacity;

local health care workers are still trying to find enough personal protective equipment they expect will be needed in the coming weeks;

supplies are limited nationally, so testing for COVID-19 is still restricted to only the sickest people who have had known contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

“We have 39 confirmed cases, but we know that the confirmed cases are really only a reflection of our testing strategy,” Britten said. “... We know that there are many, many more out there in the community who just haven’t been reported.”

She said health care workers are in daily telephone contact with the more than 700 people who are self isolating for 14 days.

“Our staff is definitely hard at work doing that contact tracing, trying to make sure isolation and quarantine of people who have exposure or presumed exposure with some of these confirmed cases,” she said.

She said the Berrien County Health Department is coordinating with local hospital emergency room staff who see patients suspected of having COVID-19, but don’t fit the criteria from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to be tested. She said those people are also being asked to self isolate for 14 days.

“Our main goal ... is to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Britten said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re doing what we can to ensure that every infection that happens produces as few other infections as possible. We want every infection to end with that person and have that person not spread it further.”

Health Department Communications Manager Gillian Conrad said after the meeting that most county residents appear to be taking the governor’s order to stay home seriously. She said that when contact tracing started on March 20 with the first two positive cases, each infected person reported being in contact with 14 to 15 other people the previous four days.

Now, she said people who receive positive results report only being in contact with two to three people over the previous few days.

“People are staying at home,” Conrad said. “This is how we break the chain of transmission. This is why isolation and quarantine is so important.”

Two ICU units

When contacted by phone after the meeting, Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said contractors and staff have been working around the clock to accelerate by three weeks the opening of the five-floor, 260,000-square-foot Lakeland Medical Center Pavilion at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph.

“We had every fire marshal, I’m told, in the state helping us ensure that we were opening it safely” he said. “We said we’re in a crisis in health care. We need this facility urgently. And the state fire marshals were very responsive.”

Hamel said that gives the medical center two intensive care units, because the old one will not be closed until after the pandemic is over. He said medical center’s number of ICU beds has increased from 14 to 34 with the addition of the second ICU unit. In addition, he said other areas of the hospital can be turned into ICU rooms. When it’s all done, he said the hospital could have capacity for 70 ICU beds, if needed.

But that still may not be enough.

“We’ve modeled out how this is going to hit our community and our state,” he said. “(This pandemic) is going to build and build and build in our country. ... That’s what’s happening in New York. That’s what’s happening on the other side of the state.”

He said Berrien County may not be hit as hard as the bigger cities because people don’t live as close together. The population density in Detroit is almost 5,000 people per square mile. In Berrien County, the population density is about 200 people per square mile.

“There’s some evidence that population density may be a mitigating factor in more rural counties, but there’s no promise,” he said.

He said an advantage to having two ICU units is that they can isolate COVID-19 patients in one unit. But as the surge hits, he said they may not be able to continue keeping COVID-19 patients separate from other patients.

Hamel said the opening of the pavilion early also created more command center space so they can better prepare for the expected surge.

“It’s still challenging to get supplies,” he said. “It’s still challenging to get staff. And those are challenges that all health care systems are facing.”

Social distancing

Hamel said the best way to slow the spread of the virus is for residents to be diligent in their social distancing. He said that will save more lives than any preparation the health care system can make.

The problem, he said, is that people with COVID-19 are contagious several days before they get sick. And it is estimated that 25 percent of people who get COVID-19 never develop any symptoms.

“All it takes to spread the disease is a 14-year-old asymptomatic granddaughter giving her grandmother a hug,” he said.

Hamel said the health care system is doing everything it can to prepare for the expected surge.

“But those efforts, however important they are, are less important than everybody everywhere maintaining social distance. Everybody, everywhere keeping their hands incredibly clean and not touching their face after they’ve been out and about,” he said. “What will prevent this virus from taking the lives of folks in Berrien County has more to do with people’s diligence with their caution about social distancing and hand washing than anything else we can do.”

Hamel said it is predicted that the state should be starting to recover sometime during the summer.

Contact:, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege