A sign at St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Joseph encourages hope Monday as the public continues to deal with COVID-19. 

Berrien County health officials on Monday announced the first death in the county from COVID-19.

The person was a man over the age of 70 with serious underlying health conditions, according to a news release from the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD).

He had been hospitalized at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton on Monday evening issued a statement, identifying the man as Vietnam War veteran Walter “Bud” Baker.

“Today many a tear will be shed for our beloved Walter “Bud” Baker. He represented the very best of our community and our nation. During the Vietnam War, despite being shot 13 times in the chest, arm, and leg during action in Bien Hoa in 1968, he fearlessly fought to save the lives of his fellow patriots. He was rightly awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. His incredible courage, selflessness, and love of country was evident in duty and after he returned home, where he served as a chaplain and as part of Lest We Forget,” Upton said. “... Sadly, this vicious virus did what even the ravages of war could not.”

Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, also issued a statement. “On behalf of the entire Spectrum Health Lakeland team our deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of this individual,” said Hamel in the release. “We realize this is difficult news for our community and these are unprecedented and uncertain times for all. We have the deepest compassion for our friends and neighbors who fall sick, and for our team members who remain committed to care for our COVID-19 patients and fight this virus together.”

The number of positive cases of COVID-19 in Berrien County rose to 32 Monday, up from 29 reported Sunday. Van Buren and Cass counties remained at four positive cases a piece.

The BCHD reports that 10 of the 32 positive cases have fully recovered from their symptoms. Many of the others are recovering at home.

Nicki Britten, health officer of the BCHD, is urging the public to continue to social distance.

“Protecting the health of our community and slowing the spread of COVID-19 is our top priority,” she said.

Berrien County health officials have said they can not keep track of the number of tests that have been performed because the testing strategy through all of this has changed almost daily, and there are now many different labs processing COVID-19 tests.

“It’s not really a helpful number for what’s going on,” Britten said at a news conference last week. “Tests are a limited resource and only those that are seriously ill are being tested.”

Spectrum Health has reported that it is processing all COVID-19 tests at its lab in Grand Rapids resulting in faster turnaround time for test results.

In addition, Spectrum Health is still offering free virtual screenings for COVID-19 to those in Michigan who have symptoms and may be concerned they have the virus. Callers to the screening line, 616-391-2380, will be asked a series of questions about their condition by a provider who will advise whether they need to seek additional care.

Lakeland is still offering a drive-up COVID-19 specimen collection site at the Center for Outpatient Services in St. Joseph to enable fast, efficient and safe testing from individuals who have a physician’s order.

The BCHD will provide updates on its website, www.bchdmi.org, on social media, and at its hotline, 1-800-815-5485.

The Van Buren Cass District Health Department will provide updates on its website, www.vbcassdhd.org/covid-19.

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