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Berrien County health officials are encouraged by the slow growth rate of new COVID-19 cases in Southwest Michigan compared to other parts of the state.

“Our rates are about double that of a month a ago, but the growth isn’t as steep. In November, we were doubling every 10 days,” Nicki Britten, health officer for the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD), said during a Facebook Live update Wednesday.

Britten said this slower growth could be a good sign. But she added that exponential growth could still occur.

Berrien County recorded 79 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the average number of new cases a day in the county to about 53.

Britten said the B.1.1.7 (UK) COVID-19 variant has become the predominate strain in Michigan, and because it’s so much more transmissible, that’s a cause for some of the increases.

“We’re lucky that right now, today, we’re not at that breaking point, but this is a warning for all of us to just make sure that we’re being diligent in the protective measures we all know that we need to do: getting your vaccination, avoiding close contact with other people, good hand hygiene and staying home when you’re ill,” Britten said.

She said this slower growth rate has allowed the county to keep its COVID hospital admissions at a manageable level.

Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said the hospital in-patient trend has mirrored the steady increase in the community.

“We’re running in the mid-40s each day for patients, and the proportion in the intensive care unit is a little lower,” he said.

On Wednesday morning the hospital had 44 COVID-positive patients admitted. Last Wednesday it had 36.

Hamel said mortality isn’t as high, but deaths do continue to happen.

“It’s still a very significant disease and we’re seeing younger people in the intensive care unit, and younger people on ventilators, this round than we did in earlier surges. We have 20 and 30-year-olds that are as sick as the seniors were in November,” he said.

Britten said high vaccination rates within the older population of Berrien County are also helping these trends.

As of Tuesday, about 70 percent of Berrien County residents 65 and older had at least one shot, with 60 percent fully vaccinated.

The whole county’s eligible population (16 and up) is at about 41 percent with at least one shot and 27.2 percent fully vaccinated.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman