BENTON TOWNSHIP — The risk of getting COVID-19 can be low if all of the proper precautions are taken, local health officials say.
“We all understand the economic and social benefits of having the economy more open, and it is critical that we all take actions that allow things to remain open without leading to surges in COVID-19 transmission,” said Nicki Britten, health officer for the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD) in a news release Monday.
During July, Berrien County has traced some clusters of COVID-19 back to large gatherings, family parties and celebrations, church events, and other “high risk activity where lack of social distancing and face coverings likely contributed to the quick spread of the virus through those in attendance,” according to the BCHD.
Berrien County has seen a recent spike in new COVID-19 cases that is leading to some concern as the new school year approaches.
Britten said Berrien County residents “need to make a conscious shift in the way we live our lives to avoid reaching transmission levels that would prohibit in-person instruction for students.”
She said that means staying at home as much as possible, especially if you’re feeling sick, reducing how many people we see in person, continuing to wear face coverings and keep physical distance in public.
During a news conference Monday, Britten said she’s not really sure how much transmission will occur if/when schools open in the fall, but the health department has been working with the county’s schools, public and private, regarding reopening procedures to keep the kids and the adults safe.
Dr. Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said during the news conference that hospital staff members have a lot about the spread of COVID-19 over the last couple of months, and that’s why they are now allowing visitors for those patients.
“We watched the staff on the COVID-19 units to see if they got sick as caregivers. Most of them did not,” he said. “The risk of getting infected was almost the same as the general population.”
Hamel said if people are washing their hands, leaving 6 feet of distance between them and others, and wearing a mask, they can control their risk of getting and/or spreading COVID-19.
“I assume when I walk into a grocery store that I need to protect myself, and that someone in that grocery store has COVID,” Hamel said. “If we’re cleaning surfaces and taking good care of hygiene practices and social distancing, the risk is lower. We learned that in the COVID-19 units.”
Britten said as of Monday, the county’s contact tracers have not identified any asymptomatic cases that has spread it to others.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It is still possible to spread it if you’re asymptomatic, but if you’re doing all the right things, the risk is incredibly low,” she said. “The result can be invisible, but that’s what we need to do, focus on those preventative measures.”
Britten and Hamel said that though the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is increasing, it is still way under surge capacity.
The three recent COVID-19 deaths have all been people in high-risk categories for the virus, according to Britten.
“Those deaths are tragic, but there aren’t new populations that are showing up in our death data, and that’s a good thing for our community as a whole,” she said.
Britten said one of the reasons the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths hasn’t increased exponentially yet is because younger people are getting the virus in greater numbers.
She said the average age of someone with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic was 54. In June that ageraged dropped to 41, and now it is 40.
Younger folks are at much lower risk for severe illness and death, though they are still capable of spreading the virus to others, especially to those who are at higher risk, according to Britten.
Britten said it’s good that Berrien County is still under a 4 percent positivity rate when it comes to testing, though that rate has increased as July has gone on.
COVID-19 count update
Berrien County gained 30 new COVID-19 cases over Saturday, Sunday and Monday, while also gaining 33 recoveries.
With no new deaths, this brings the number of active cases in the county to about 138, down from 141 on Friday and 166 last Monday.
Spectrum Health Lakeland was treating nine COVID-19 patients as of Monday morning, down from 14 on Friday and the same as last Monday.
Van Buren County gained another COVID-19 death over the weekend, bringing its death toll to 10.
In addition, the county gained 14 new cases over the three days.
Cass County gained 14 new cases over the weekend as well. It still has eight deaths.