ST. JOSEPH — The effectiveness of vaccinations against COVID-19 and the reason behind hospital staff shortages were hot topics Thursday during a Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting.
In a Committee of the Whole meeting, Berrien County Health Officer Guy Miller said the county is in the midst of a surge that is straining the local hospitals, with the county at 1,182 cases per 100,000 people.
“There’s a lot of these different variables to take into consideration,” Miller said. “That’s our current numbers and our current interpretation is yes, we have a lot of COVID in our community. It’s going around and it’s quite infectious.”
Typically, he said the number of people needing to be hospitalized increases two to three weeks after the number of cases surge. And two weeks after that, he said the mortality rates tend to spike.
However, Miller said the number of deaths from COVID-19 dropped from 79 in December 2020 to 53 in December 2021.
“Knowing that the vaccine is an effective way to decrease morbidity and mortality, and knowing that we have about an 86 percent initiation of vaccination rate in people 75 and older in Berrien County ... I think it’s been a protective factor in the mortality rates that we’ve experienced recently,” he said.
But Miller said the local hospitals are overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.
“Our responsibility as a public health department is – how can you decrease this COVID-19 prevalence to get to the point where the hospital is functioning well again?” he said.
Commissioner Ezra Scott said he wanted to know what portion of the hospital’s struggles could be attributed to workers being let go after refusing the vaccine. He said the county can’t be held responsible for decisions made by a private entity.
Miller said to his knowledge, no workers were let go.
“There is the test-to-stay strategy, which doctors and nurses can use if they’re unvaccinated. They can test once a week to stay working at the hospital,” Miller said.
When contacted by phone after the meeting, Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said only a handful of workers chose to leave rather than get vaccinated or submit to weekly tests. He said the staff shortages being experienced throughout the country have nothing to do with vaccine mandates.
“We have a history of requiring vaccines that goes back 30 years,” he said. “Flu vaccines, measles vaccines and others. It’s not uncommon to have health (care) workers be the first to get vaccines.”
Spectrum Health reported in November that 99.9 percent of its team members were compliant with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, which means they had either been fully vaccinated, had begun the vaccine process, received an exemption or submitted an exemption request.
“Health care around the country has required the vaccination and the reason for that is pretty clear,” Hamel said. “We don’t want our staff transmitting the virus. We want to make sure our workplace is as safe as can be.”
Spectrum Health Lakeland workers having to stay home from work for COVID-related reasons is a big problem, with 117 team members off work Thursday, said Laura Wagner, marketing manager at Spectrum Health Lakeland.
Hamel said even though the pandemic is global, people need to pay attention to what is happening locally. Currently, he said three people every week are dying in Berrien County from COVID-19. He said almost all of them were not vaccinated.
“A couple of months ago we had one (per week dying),” he said. “... We are in the middle of a vicious omicron surge.”
In addition, he said almost everyone will get COVID-19, even if they are vaccinated.
“The vaccine is not very effective at preventing illness (from omicron). It’s extremely effective at preventing ICU admission and death,” Hamel said. “My ICU at this point is 100 percent unvaccinated.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Berrien County Board President Mac Elliott directed Miller to give a report on what percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 are vaccinated.