Berrien Health Care Officials Fear Running Out of Beds if COVID Trend Continues

If the current pace of COVID transmissions in Michigan’s Great Southwest continues at the trend rate of the past several weeks, Dr. Loren Hamel, head of Spectrum Health Lakeland’s hospital system in the region tells us, “There is a significant concern that we could run out of beds in the next several weeks.”

Hamel joined Berrien County Health Department Officer Nicki Britten in a Zoom virtual update from the health department this morning, with both voicing concerns over the increased rate of the coronavirus in the county in recent weeks.

Hamel says that the hospital system has seen “more in-patient activity in recent weeks,” noting, “Our in-patient volume dropped as low as zero earlier this summer, and originally peaked in April in the 20’s,” for the COVID unit at the hospital. “Now, that number is in the 30’s with as many as 36 in recent days.” Additionally, the Intensive Care Unit — ICU — has seen significant patient level increases running at 6 to 7 currently.” Hamel says he hopes that the current trends of the last several weeks are moderated and strongly urges the community at large to please be as responsible as possible and follow safety protocols of washing hands regularly, wearing a mask, and social distancing.

The Health Departments Britten says, “It’s hard not to notice the uptick in recent weeks in the number of confirmed cases of COVID in the community,” adding, “Our 7-day running average is now up to 40 cases per day.” By comparison, that number was around 12 at the beginning of the month of October, calling it “a pretty significant increase in the number of confirmed cases.”

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Additionally, the percentage rate of positive test results has soared to 7.5-percent where it had been averaging around 3-percent for most of the summer. While Britten says that the significant increase is partially due to the increased number of tests, it could also be partially impacted by the fact that new “rapid testing” results that produce negative numbers haven’t always been included, as the entire system works to extrapolate the numbers accurately.

Hospitalization rates have gone up, as Dr. Hamel noted, but they haven’t increased at as steep a rate or the same pace as the number of confirmed cases, which Britten calls, “a good thing.”

Britten also reports today that “Death trends to not look dramatically different,” but cautions, “There is always a lag time between confirmation and hospitalization, too.” She adds, “The good news is that deaths due to COVID do seem to be declining, especially now that we know more about proper treatment and therapeutics” in the care of COVID patients.

Much of the concerns about sending school kids back to the classroom this fall has failed to materialize, as Britten reports “Schools do not appear to be a driver in the transmission of the coronavirus, and the numbers have, in fact, been lower than we expected.” Schools have largely not contributed to the recent surge nearly so much as community activities wherein people are being less diligent in taking the proper precautions of wearing protective masks, washing hands regularly, and sanitizing frequently touched surfaces and the like.

The bottom line from both parties today is “COVID is still here, and it is still making people sick. Be diligent as the life you save could be that your friends and family members.”

Dr. Hamel says that current visitor protocols continue, however if the trendline continues upward, additional restriction might need to be employed. Hospitalized patients are restricted to one visitor and COVID unit patients are not allowed visitors at all.

The Health Department is encouraging school systems to continue to do what they have been doing since the return to classes, with Britten telling them, “Stay the course.” Her department has been working closely with the schools of the region and says that while there have been a few isolated cases in schools, “the vast majority of such cases stem from community transmission, where the exposure came from outside of the school setting.” She’s proud that schools in the region “continue to be very diligent about maximizing hygiene and minimizing contact and continually cleaning, which seems to be working very well.”

Britten says that many feared that the return to schools would cause dramatic vulnerability, but cites the school systems’ diligence as a prime example of how to behave in a pandemic, and something that the community at large should work to replicate because the virus is going to be around for awhile, “perhaps a year or even longer.”

Testing for COVID continues to be a priority, and Spectrum Health Lakeland has approximately 400 to 500 regular tests and round 40 rapid tests available per day, and they are working to expand that capacity. For those in search of a rapid test, Hamel cautions, “Curiosity is not a priority, there must be a strong medical concern,” driving the request for a rapid test.

Britten cited the “Herculean effort” of her team which has been working around the clock, 7-days a week, since March of this year to keep on top of things including test results, contact tracing, investigations and beyond. She says, “We’re keeping up, but may struggle to keep up if the recent trends continue on an upward spiral,” and reminds everyone to “be wise and help us, because you are often infectious before your symptoms actually show up.”

Regarding the upcoming holiday season when families will want to be close with one another as has become tradition, Dr. Hamel says, “I encourage you to show your love, to share your love, but not too closely. Be verbally expressive in this challenging time. Look for new ways to care about each other, and enjoy your time safely.”

Britten echoes Dr. Hamel’s suggestions, saying, “As Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah and other celebrations arrive, enjoy unity, togetherness and love differently. Those things look different in times of COVID. Perhaps the best plan could be to vary your traditions this year. We can do this for one year to build the resilience that we need to get through this.”