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BENTON TOWNSHIP — Berrien County Health Department officials are preparing for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, in addition to balancing a high case count right now.

Deputy Health Officer Courtney Davis told the Berrien County Board of Health on Wednesday morning that initial distribution of the Pfizer vaccine is expected around Dec. 18.

She said the health department, along with Spectrum Health Lakeland, are working in weekly meetings on getting population counts on those most likely to be prioritized to receive the first doses. Those populations include health care workers, plus staff and residents of congregant care facilities.

“We want to avoid some of the confusion we had around H1N1 and make sure we know who is responsible for what, and that we’re efficient with our time,” Davis said.

The health department would partner with Spectrum Health Lakeland to store vaccines that must be kept at extremely cold temperatures, like the Pfizer vaccine. It could store others itself, like the one from Moderna, that need not be kept so cold.

Davis said vaccinating high priority groups will take several months, and will be complicated by the cold weather and, possibly, the multiple doses people will need to get.

“There won’t be mass availability of the vaccine until late April or May,” she said. “That could speed up or slow down, but that’s the estimation now.”

New quarantine window

The CDC announced Wednesday that people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus but are asymptomatic can end their quarantine after seven days, instead of 14, if they test negative.

A test can be completed 48 hours prior to day seven of quarantine, but people must complete seven days minimum. If test results are not received by day seven, people must continue to quarantine until day 10.

Davis said Berrien County does not have the testing capacity to return test results within 48 hours for everyone, so most people will need to still complete the full 10-day quarantine period.

“There won’t be enough tests to have every asymptomatic, quarantined person get a test and get the results in a meaningful amount of time to then alter that quarantine period,” she said.

County Medical Director Rick Johansen said that he, and the science, supports shortening the length for quarantine for those exposed to the virus.

“To me one of the greatest things about the change in quarantine is the decreased disruption to families and maybe the increase in compliance if people are told it’s 10 days instead of 14 days,” he said Wednesday before news of the change.

Finance update

Lisa Ankenbruck, the health department’s business manager, gave a finance report to the county health board.

She said that even though the COVID-19 pandemic created some declines in revenues and increases in expenses, the health department will carry a fund balance of about $1.4 million into 2021.

“We’re in good shape,” she said.

Ankenbruck said, to date, the department has spent a little over $1 million on COVID-related expenses.

Expenditures are up about 9 percent over last year, so far, with most of that being due to personnel expenses.

She said there were increases in the number of staff, salary, overtime, benefit rates and temporary help. Overall, added staff has cost the health department about $227,000.

She said state and federal grant revenues through October were up about 18 percent over budget, and about 79 percent of those total revenues were COVID-related.

Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance and clinic revenues are projected to end the year under budget by about $85,000.

“That’s down about 14 percent from last year,” Ankenbruck said. “We closed the clinic in March due to COVID for in-person visits, and that’s definitely having an impact on our revenues this year.”

Count update

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Spectrum Health Lakeland rose again on Wednesday, to 67. That’s up from 59 on Tuesday and 59 last Wednesday.

Berrien County recorded an additional 125 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the seven day average to about 106 new cases a day. That’s down from 113 on Tuesday and 114 last Wednesday.

Health officials warned during the meeting that this dip could still be due to the Thanksgiving holiday. A few more days of data are needed to see if the curve is flattening, or if there is just a lull in testing and reporting.

Berrien County also recorded 44 new recoveries Wednesday. This brings the number of active cases in the county to about 3,703. That’s up from 3,191 last Wednesday.

No new deaths were recorded Wednesday. The county still stands at 110 total COVID-19 deaths.

Johansen said the average age of COVID-19 deaths in Berrien County continue to be above 80, and more than 70 percent of the county’s recent deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities.

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