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BENTON TOWNSHIP — There’s every reason to believe the more contagious COVID-19 variants are already in Berrien County, local health officials said Wednesday.

“It’s been seen in states all over the country. ... We just haven’t identified it yet,” Nicki Britten, health officer at the Berrien County Health Department, said during a Facebook Live COVID-19 update Wednesday.

On Monday, the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department reported a case of the B.1.1.7 variant in Van Buren County, and that has Berrien officials cautious.

Britten said the strain of virus, thought to have emerged in the United Kingdom, has to be detected through special testing.

“The thing that’s important to remember, and why we can’t let our guards down, is that strain of the virus is just more infectious. It’s more likely to spread between people than what we were seeing much of last year,” she said.

Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said Wednesday that the variants aren’t causing more severity of disease, but just more of it.

“That being said, the longer a virus is in an active pandemic stage, the more likely we’re going to get mutations and the more likely these variants could be more severe,” he said.

Hamel said he and other health experts are estimating, though it’s not official, that people are going to need an annual booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine due to the variant strains of the virus.

“We’re used to that with flu vaccines, and that will likely transpire with COVID-19 as well,” he said.

Vaccine update

As of Tuesday, 22,160 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Berrien County, with about 4,730 of those being second doses, according to state data.

Britten said demand for the vaccine is still far outpacing supply.

“We could use a lot more than we’re currently getting,” she said. “The production of the vaccine is really the limiting factor. The vaccines just need to be produced more rapidly. As production ramps up, so will the allocations and then we’re able to get them to more people each week than we currently are.”

Hamel said vaccination efforts are going to take up much of 2021.

“This is not a short game, so be patient and be careful. It’s not over yet and lives are still at risk,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended double-masking for more protection against the coronavirus.

“We have to continue to be vigilant, especially as these variants are changing the landscape,” Britten said.

Data update

Britten said she’s very encouraged by recent COVID-19 case data in Berrien County.

Berrien County recorded 21 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, along with 63 new recoveries.

No new deaths were recorded.

With deaths and recoveries, the Berrien County is down to about 1,038 active COVID-19 cases. That’s down from 1,284 last Wednesday.

Spectrum Health Lakeland had 19 COVID-19 patients admitted Wednesday morning. That’s compared to 26 patients last Wednesday.

Van Buren County recorded 11 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, while Cass County recorded 12. No new deaths were recorded in either county.

Contact:, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman