Berrien County Health Department, Spectrum Health Lakeland host joint live update on COVID-19

BERRIEN COUNTY– On Friday, the Berrien County Health Department and Spectrum Health Lakeland brought representatives together for a joint Facebook Live video to provide updates about the area’s COVID-19 status.

Health officer Nicki Britten of the Berrien County Health Department was joined by Dr. Loren B. Hamel, Spectrum Health Lakeland president, to update the community about new numbers they are reporting, new positive cases in area nursing homes, new procedures Spectrum Health Lakeland is using as of today and what reopening the local economy might look like.

The health department has been busy making calls and working on contact tracing, Britten said.

“For all the positive cases that we have in Berrien County, the Berrien County Health Department actually calls those cases,” she said. “We get a list of close contacts, who they’ve been around during the period that they were symptomatic and 48-hours prior. As we know, there is some risk of infection before symptom onset. We talk to people about that close contact, then we call all those in contact and inquire about their symptoms.”

In all, the calls tracing contacts with positive COVID-19 tests and symptoms has led to reaching 1,600 people through the county.

“It’s really helping us get a better understanding of what’s going on in the community,” Britten said.

The contact tracing plays an important part in how the health department comes up with a strategy and recovery effort.

Britten also said that the health department would not be asking for financial information or social security numbers, but they were concerned with symptoms and contacts involved.

On Thursday, the Berrien County Health Department posted a new data set of presumed positive COVID-19 cases.

“’Presumed positive’ is somebody who has all the symptoms of the coronavirus, and they have a link to somebody who is a confirmed case, but they themselves were not tested,” Britten said.
There are reasons that individuals may not have been tested, including test shortages. The number announced on Friday of presumed positive cases was 166.

Britten explained that these were not new cases, but a total of presumed positive cases since the end of March.

“We will begin adding to that number daily, so we’ll be able to see how that number is increasing, primarily through contact tracing,” Britten said.

Hamel announced that on Friday, Spectrum Health Lakeland had done its first transfusion of convalescent plasma to a sick patient.

“It’s a big step. We hope that’s going to be a very beneficial treatment,” Hamel said.

Hamel explained that convalescent plasma treatment was giving the plasma of a recovered COVID-19 patient, who now tests negative for the virus, to someone who is actively fighting it. The process takes time, as the recovered patient is tested 14-days after recovery and must test negative for the virus after initially testing positive.

“We take that plasma and give it to someone who is sick as a way of boosting their immune response and also blunting some of the inflammatory response that occurs,” Hamel said “It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to find people in the right category, get them tested and match their blood type with a patient in need.”

Hamel said that Spectrum Health Lakeland was working to make the process more efficient.

The new treatment comes on the heels of the news of positive COVID-19 cases in area nursing homes. Pine Ridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Stevensville and Hallmark Living in Benton Harbor are both being closely monitored by the Berrien County Health Department and Spectrum Health Lakeland.

“Sadly, yesterday we had an individual at Pine Ridge get rapidly sick,” Hamel said. “We tested them for COVID-19, and they tested positive.”

He explained that the caregivers that had been around that individual had been tested as well.
“We now have a few positives that were asymptomatic at the time. I suspect some will become symptomatic,” he said.

Britten said that the health department is taking as many precautions as they can to keep the spread of the virus as minimal as possible.

Both Britten and Hamel addressed concerns surrounding lowering precautions and reopening businesses.

“It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be like flipping on a switch,” Britten said. “We do know that we are going to need social distancing through some different phases.”

Britten acknowledged that social connections and going outside were also parts of remaining healthy, but that social distancing would likely remain in place in different steps as things moved towards opening back up. She mentioned that the new infection and hospitalization numbers would have to be in a stable down-trend for those steps to be taken.

“It’s important to have those things on the horizon,” Britten said. “We’re not at that point of it happening in the next week or two. We don’t know what May is going to like on the statistical perspective.”

Working towards being able to offer antibody testing is a goal of Hamel’s. Spectrum Health Lakeland is actively pursuing acquiring tests, but is still wary of the accuracy.

“You don’t want to tell someone that they’re immune and have them moving into a situation where they’re at risk,” Hamel said. “I believe that going back to work is going to be enhanced, or even dependent, on being able to test safely for that herd immunity.”

Britten encouraged listeners to continue adhering to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order, to practice good hand hygiene and to cover their face with a mask while making essential trips.

As of press time Friday, Berrien County had 144 cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths. Cass County has 22 cases and one death, while Van Buren County had 28 cases and two deaths.

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