Berrien County hosts press conference on state of emergency

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County is ramping up its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In support of the recommendation by the Berrien County emergency management coordinator and the Berrien County public health officer, the chair of the Berrien County Board of Commissioners Thursday declared a local state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As of press time Thursday, there were 11 confirmed cases in Berrien County, three of whom have fully recovered.

Case numbers have risen to 2,856 in the state of Michigan and 68,440 in the U.S. In neighboring counties, Cass County has reported one case of COVID-19, while Van Buren County has reported two. Nationwide, there have been 994 deaths related to COVID-19, 60 of which were reported in the state of Michigan.

Before Thursday’s announcement, a state of emergency was most recently declared in Berrien County following the 2018 flood.

“We are looking for all available resources to address the growing community needs in Berrien County to help combat this health crisis,” said Board of Commissioner Chair Mac Elliott.

To address the state of emergency, the Berrien County Health Department, in conjunction with other county agencies, hosted a press conference Thursday. In the meeting, Berrien County Health Department Officer Nicki Britten spoke on why the state of emergency was declared, how the virus is spreading in Berrien County, and what residents can do to protect themselves.

“I want to thank our county commissioners, our emergency management office, Spectrum Health Lakeland and all of our other community partners who have been integral to the COVID-19 response in Berrien County,” Britten said. “It’s been encouraging to see how many organizations, institutions, groups and individuals have rallied around those who are most in need of support at this time.”

Britten said the state of emergency declaration is not a response to the number of increasing cases of the virus, but instead is a measure to open up additional resources to aim the county’s response to the pandemic and see that response through to recovery.

Emergency Management Coordination Captain Rockey Adams said the declaration would help the county to build a support organization behind it to keep up with ordering and receiving deliveries of scarce equipment, be able to bring volunteers on board when they are needed and begin to build a team that is focused on economic and community recovery. Additionally, it will allow Berrien County to continue to build on the work already underway and make available all county and local resources to deal with the ongoing health crisis.

If infection rates rise in the same manner they have been, healthcare systems will become overwhelmed and will not have the resources to care for all who become sick, Britten said.

“The COVID-19 epidemic provides very little in the way of certainties. We cannot see the virus as it travels from person to person, and we cannot predict with 100-percent accuracy how long the outbreak will lost nor how many lives will ultimately be impacted. This uncertainty can cause apprehension, anxiety and fear. We do know for certain that we are in the early days of this response, and we have a long road ahead of us,” Britten said. “We are working around the clock to change these current trends.”

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Berrien County, Britten said residents should following social distancing guidelines, such as remaining 6 feet apart from others, staying at home as much as possible, and using caution when out in public.

Britten said the health department would not be releasing the cities of residence of those confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, nor would her department be releasing a list of public spaces victims are known to have visited. Instead, she said county residents should operate with the knowledge that there is a risk of contracting the virus in all public spaces, including the grocery store, the gas station and workplaces of those who have been deemed essential services by the government. However, she added that the virus is most commonly spread by face to face contact.

“We need to shift our thinking to there are people in the community who have it and maybe spreading it unknowingly,” Britten said. “We are at a critical point in our response. In order to flatten the curve, we must limit the spread of illness at every single opportunity. … These are critical days in our response. Our actions today will have a significant impact on the results we have tomorrow, next week and the week after that.”

Everyone is encouraged to keep following the basic prevention steps to prevent the spread of the virus:

• Wash hands often with soap and water

• Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands

• Cover mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing

• Avoid shaking hands

• Keep at least 6 feet apart from others when in public

• Avoid contact with people who are sick

• Stay home when sick