Officials announce first two positive coronavirus cases in Berrien County

Health Officer Nicki Britten with the Berrien County Health Department speaks Saturday about the first two positive cases of COVID-19 in Berrien County. Also at the news conference were, from left, Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit; Dr. Rick Johansen, Berrien County medical director; and Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland.

BENTON TOWNSHIP — The Berrien County Health Department confirmed Sunday that there are four positive cases of COVID-19 within the county.

Three of the people who tested positive for the coronavirus had close contact with singer Sandi Patty when she performed at Andrews University on March 8.

They were among several people reporting symptoms after meeting the Grammy Award-winning gospel singer for a special “in-person experience” after the concert, said Dr. Rick Johansen, Berrien County medical director.

Health department officials said the fourth case is unrelated to the concert.

The county previously reported the first two cases during a news conference Saturday at the health department on Napier Avenue.

The health department posted an updated figure Sunday morning after more test results came in.

Until recently, only the state lab was able to process tests for COVID-19. Now there are private, university and hospital labs that are able to process these tests.

Due to so many labs now processing COVID-19 tests, health department officials said it is difficult to know the exact number of how many tests are being submitted and processed daily. Because of this, the department will only be reporting on the number of positive cases and the number of deaths in Berrien County.

Johansen said the health department was notified of the first two positive tests Saturday morning and immediately put together a team to trace all of the close contacts the two women have had since the concert.

Health Officer Nicki Britten said the first two positive tests were from women under the age of 60, who have been self-isolating at home. No further information on the two other positive cases were made available Sunday.

“And I’m happy to report that they are in good condition, recovering from the symptoms,” she said.

Anyone who had close contact with the people who tested positive for COVID-19 are asked to self-quarantine and will be monitored. Anyone who had close personal contact with Patty is asked to self-quarantine and monitor themselves through March 22, which marks 14 days after the contact. The symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and/or shortness of breath.

For more information, call the health department’s hotline at 1-800-815-5485.

Johansen said everyone who had close contact should self-quarantine, but only people showing symptoms and who had close contact should be tested, because there aren’t enough tests to go around.

Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said people need an order from a doctor or from the health department to be tested at the drive-through site at the Center for Outpatient Services, 3900 Hollywood Road.

When asked how many testing kits are available, Hamel said, “Not enough. Not across the country. Not across the state.”

Hamel said Spectrum’s lab in Grand Rapids has started doing its own tests, meaning that test results come back in hours rather than days. But he said the limiting factor is that some of the supplies needed to create the tests are scarce.

“In the meantime, if folks get sick with mild symptoms, assume that you have COVID-19 and shelter in place and stay away from others,” he said. “You can do that whether or not you have a test. And that is something everybody must do out of an abundance of caution.”

Johansen said the governor’s office has asked officials across the state not to disclose how many people have been tested for the virus.

To save the scarce COVID-19 tests, he said that when people are sick, they test them for other illnesses.

“And almost every time, we found some other virus like the flu or something else,” he said. “And then we’ve had them quarantined and we’re watching them.”

He said they’ve been able to test the people who really needed the tests so far.

Meanwhile, Hamel said the entire Spectrum Health Lakeland health system is gearing up for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We’re ... making sure we’re preparing the facilities and the staff for what could be weeks or a few months of more patients than we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We hope that doesn’t come to Berrien County.”

In other countries further along in the pandemic, he said not every hospital has been flooded with patients.

“They’re focused in certain areas, and that’s likely to occur in this country as well,” he said. “We’re hoping that all that preparation will be unnecessary.”

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege