BENTON TOWNSHIP — As more and more folks get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, local health officials are urging patience.

“For those individuals who are eager and ready and know that they want it, basically, stay tuned. We’re providing information as quickly as we possibly can,” Gillian Conrad, spokesperson for the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD), said Tuesday.

Front-line staff at the BCHD, as well as Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel, began receiving their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine this week.

The state reported Tuesday that about 71,000 Michigan residents have now received the vaccine.

The BCHD is currently focusing on providing vaccines to individuals in priority groups 1 and 2 of Phase 1A, which includes EMS personnel, medical first responders, and some long-term care facility workers and residents.

Concurrently, local hospital systems are vaccinating their health care workers, and pharmacies are vaccinating residents and staff of most long-term care facilities.

The BCHD is estimating finishing up these priority groups in the next seven to 10 days. Priority group 3, which includes other health care workers, like dentists, home health care aides and pharmacy staff, would begin after that and this phase is expected to last through mid-late January.

Phase 1B, which includes persons 75 years of age or older and front-line essential workers in critical infrastructure, would begin after that.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer encouraged residents Tuesday to make a plan to get the vaccine.

Local health officials say there isn’t a whole lot for the general public to plan for just yet, but there are some things folks can do to prepare.

“While it’s really good to be thinking as far ahead as possible, right now, a big part of people’s plans is just to be staying informed, following the news, getting updates from the health department and making sure they are paying attention to when their priority group will be up,” Conrad said.

She said she’s heard from people who are worried they’re going to miss their chance to get vaccinated.

“I want to assure people, it’s not like there will only be one opportunity,” Conrad said. “There will be days, weeks, potentially months spent trying to reach everybody in different priority groups.”

Conrad, the BCHD’s communications manager, said the health department should have a more solid timeline as they move into 2021, and will get that information out as widely as possible, using every possible platform and method they can, including the news media and social media.

“Once we’re at a point where we have a vaccination clinic schedule that we can publish, like drive-thru clinics with their hours and how to make appointments, or if they’re walk-in, we’re going to make sure people know about that and they know how to go about getting the vaccine,” she said.

A lot of the local COVID-19 vaccination plan is still dependent on the state and federal governments, the vaccine manufacturers, and supply and demand.

Conrad said one thing folks in later phases and priority groups can do is decide if they’re going to get the vaccine.

“We would encourage that group of people who are eager to get it as soon as it’s available to them to make a plan for where you think you might get the vaccine,” she said. “It really does depend on where you fall in the priority phases. It could be at the health department, it could be at drive-thru clinic, it could be at a pharmacy or your doctor’s office.”

Conrad said as vaccine availability increases, so will the number of providers who are able to give the COVID-19 vaccine. Right now the only providers include health departments and hospital systems.

“For people who might still be on the fence about getting the vaccine at all, maybe waiting and seeing is part of your plan. It could be to hold off and not receive it right away, but just to see how things go over the next couple of months,” she said.

Conrad said public health officials are hopeful that confidence in the vaccine will grow as time goes on, and people will decide that it’s not only beneficial for themselves, but for their community.

“Right now, if you’re not in one of those priority groups, you just have to hang tight and keep taking the preventative actions we’ve been taking,” she said.

The BCHD is encouraging everyone to signup for its vaccine newsletter. Conrad said updates will be sent as the department has them. She estimates about every other week or so.

“That is one good action folks can take when they’re feeling eager to get involved,” she said.

To sign up, and for more COVID vaccine information, visit www.bchdmi.org.

To sign up for a newsletter from the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department, visit vbcassdhd.org.

COVID numbers update

Berrien County is averaging about 39 new COVID-19 cases a day this week, with 44 being recorded on Tuesday.

COVID hospitalizations at Spectrum Health Lakeland rose to 52 on Tuesday, up from 42 on Monday. Last Tuesday, the hospital reported 36 COVID patients admitted.

BCHD and Spectrum Health Lakeland officials will give a COVID-19 update at 11 a.m. today via Facebook Live on Spectrum Health Lakeland’s Facebook page.

Van Buren County recorded two additional COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, bringing the county’s death toll to 72. No deaths were recorded in Cass County.

Cass County recorded 36 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, while Van Buren County recorded 31.

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