BENTON TOWNSHIP — Three of the 11 patients testing positive for COVID-19 in Berrien County have made a full recovery, health officials reported Thursday, as they also warned that “community spread” of the virus is now likely.

Nicki Britten, health officer for the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD), gave the update at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“We believe we are now experiencing community spread of COVID-19,” she said. “Residents should assume there’s a risk of contracting COVID-19 wherever they may be in public: the grocery store, gas station or even at the workplaces of our essential services.”

Britten said she knows there have been questions about where the people who have tested positive live and what public spaces they may have been in while they were infectious, but the health department will not release that information.

“This information is not helpful for the general public in preventing spread of the virus,” she said. “We must start to shift our thinking to assume that people in our community have it and it could be spreading unknowingly.”

Britten said the county is still in the early days of the response and has a long road ahead of it.

“While it’s easy to focus on the rising number of cases alone, those confirmed cases represent only a single brush stroke of a much larger surveillance picture that we’re looking at in our community,” she said.

BCHD staff, along with nurses from Spectrum Health Lakeland, are still working to contact as many people they can identify that may have come into contact with the positive cases, those who have been tested, and those who may have symptoms but haven’t been tested.

Britten said they are telling the people they call to stay home.

“It might take another two weeks to see if the contact tracing has had any effect on slowing the spread,” she said. “But we do feel very confident in this being a way to slow transmission. We’re doing everything we can to slow transmission.”

In addition to Berrien County’s number rising to 11 cases Thursday, the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department (VBCDHD) announced the first positive case of COVID-19 in Cass County.

The VBCDHD is continuing to investigate the circumstances around this case and working to identify individuals who may have come into close contact with the individual.

The number of cases in Van Buren County remained at two.

State of emergency

In addition Thursday, Berrien County declared a local state of emergency.

The declaration, signed by Berrien County Board Chairman Mac Elliott, puts in place the county’s emergency operation plan and better lets the county coordinate disaster relief forces for the county and its municipalities.

It will help with ordering and receiving deliveries of scarce equipment, being able to bring volunteers on board when needed, and begin to build a team focused on economic and community recovery.

Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said at the news conference that the declaration formalizes what was already happening.

“As we’ve done in the past, much like the flooding that occurred in 2018, we are looking for all available resources to address the growing community needs in Berrien County,” he said.

Britten said the emergency declaration was not made in response to the number of cases in the county, but to open up additional resources for the county.

The Berrien County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which was activated last week, will continue to operate and support the efforts of the Berrien County Health Department and Spectrum Health Lakeland and add to the response resources already committed to dealing with the pandemic.

“The EOC includes representation of first responders, police, fire and EMS, health services, schools, volunteer organizations, public works, and more,” Heit said. “Currently many members of the EOC are working remotely, following the CDC and health department guidelines of social distancing.”

Any residents who are feeling sick should stay home and contact their health care provider by phone for guidance. Residents with symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough or shortness of breath, are encouraged to call the free Spectrum Health virtual screening phone line that is available to all Michigan residents, at 616-391-2380, to see if testing is necessary.

Britten said about 80 percent of people who contract COVID-19 will feel mild to moderate symptoms that can be managed at home. Older adults may experience a harder time breathing and may need more medical intervention.

She said Berrien County’s health system is well prepared for now and has not been overwhelmed.

The VBCDHD will provide updates on its website, www.vbcassdhd.org/covid-19.

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

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