New virus strain, vaccines take center stage of Berrien County Health Department update

BERRIEN COUNTY – A thorough update on COVID-19 numbers and progress was delivered from the Berrien County Health Department and Spectrum Health Lakeland on Thursday afternoon.

A new count of COVID-19 deaths was introduced to the BCHD’s dashboard, and updates on hospitalizations from the virus, the new strain of virus and vaccines were all at the forefront of the Facebook Live update.

The new dataset, “probable deaths,” on the BCHD dashboard is a section beneath the “confirmed deaths” category on the BCHD COVID-19 dashboard on its website.

“There’s a certain definition for [COVID-19 deaths]. There are certain types of laboratory tests that you have to have to fit that confirmed criteria,” said BCHD Health Officer Nicki Britten.

“Probable cases” of COVID-19 have been tracked with the confirmed on the department’s dashboard since before June 2020.

“Those deaths that are listed as ‘probable deaths’ of COVID-19 are not confirmed cases. As we expanded our rapid antigen testing, we are seeing more people that hit that ‘probable case’ definition, as opposed to confirmed,” Britten said. “If they do end up expiring, that’s where they would fit on the dashboard.”

Loren Hamel, president of Spectrum Health Lakeland, said deaths among people confirmed with COVID-19 have plateaued over the past week.

“It had been declining, and it hasn’t continued to decline,” Hamel said. “We are at a plateau. We are hoping it will turn into a downward trend and not an upward trend.”

With the new strain of the coronavirus detected in neighboring Indiana, Hamel said Spectrum Health Lakeland and the BCHD had not seen it locally yet.

“We expect it,” Hamel said. “Any virus can mutate. We see that often with influenza. What we expect in a year is not exactly what we get in a year due to mutations.”
He said the mutations appear to be more transmissible, but not deadlier as of right now.

“If appears we will have some protection, or good protection, with the existing vaccines,” Hamel said.

The existing vaccines may be able to be tweaked in the future, if the immunity does not measure up against mutating strains, according to Hamel.

“I don’t expect anybody to tweak a vaccine anytime soon, but over the course of the summer and rest of the year, if we find it is less effective than we thought, I expect some will consider tweaking the vaccine,” he said.

Vaccine distribution is ongoing in the Berrien County area, as the BCHD and Spectrum Health Lakeland have partnered to ensure they are working through Phase 1A eligible residents first.

“The demand far outstrips the supply,” Britten said. “We have 40,000 people eligible and nowhere even close to that much vaccine available.”

She said there were 14,000 people 65 years of age and older signed up on the waitlist from the health department.

“Just about everybody [in healthcare] has had a first dose who wants a dose,” Hamel said. “We are delighted to have enough vaccine to begin immunizing the community as well. We gave over 1,200 vaccines this week and have again been absolutely coordinating with Nicki Britten and the health department everyone who has signed up, in a fair and equitable way, a dose.”

Britten said the organizations receiving the vaccines do not know until a week ahead of time how many doses they are receiving. This condenses the time frame in which the health department can schedule the vaccines.

“You might not be aware of vaccine clinics until a few days ahead of time,” Britten said. “By the time you get scheduled, we want to make sure you get a vaccine.”

She encouraged residents on waitlists to check their email on a daily basis for updates.

For residents who are not connected to the internet, or need assistance signing up, Britten said to call the health department’s hotline at 1(800) 815-5485. She indicated the hotline has been overwhelmed with calls, and to use the forms on the website if possible.

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