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‘It’s World War III’: local health officials bracing for surge in COVID-19 cases

COVID-19 (Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

Dr. Lauren Vogel, medical director of the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency, had a sobering message for those tuned in to Thursday morning’s virtual health board meeting.

“Think about World War III, because we’re in it,” he said, speaking over Zoom, a web and video conferencing platform. “We have somebody attacking us worldwide. We have to respond to that as if it were a world war.”

Vogel’s grim report on the severity of the global coronavirus pandemic comes as confirmed cases in Michigan rose to 2,856, as reported at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon. Sixty Michigan residents have died from the virus.

Late Thursday evening, the U.S. surpassed China in cases of the coronavirus. John Hopkins University, which is tracking the number of cases nationwide, reported that the U.S. had 82,404 cases as of 6 p.m. Thursday, while China had reported approximately 81,800 cases. Globally, more than 510,000 people have been infected so far, with about 21,000 deaths as the international community races to contain the spread of the novel virus strain.

While four days ago there were no confirmed cases in Branch, Hillsdale and St. Joseph Counties, there are now five infections in Hillsdale and two at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater. St. Joseph County is the lone outlier, with no confirmed cases at the moment.

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Rebecca Burns, health officer at the BHSJ Community Health Agency, provided an update on the numbers of tests conducted in the three counties. Because the number of infected is rising so quickly, Burns said she plans to brief members of the media at least once per day with updated numbers.

As of 3:45 p.m. Thursday, 38 residents of St. Joseph County has been tested, with 10 still waiting to receive test results. In Branch County, 15 have been tested for COVID-19, with six tests outstanding, while 39 Hillsdale County residents have been tested and 20 are waiting for results.

Testing has ramped up across the U.S. in recent days, but experts are saying more testing is needed.

“If we don’t test people, we cannot predict the infection or death rate,” Vogel said. “We are using data from South Korea and China, which is probably pretty accurate. But we don’t have any idea how many hospital beds or equipment we’ll need because we don’t know how many people are actually sick based on U.S. data.”

With some experts predicting that between 40 to 70 percent of Americans will become infected within the next 18 months unless major efforts to curb the virus prove successful, local health officials are warning it’s only a matter of time before more local cases are confirmed.

“It’s coming, and it’s coming at an exponential speed,” Vogel said of the coronavirus. “It may be gradual, it seems like it’s a month after it’s in your community before you start seeing cases, but once you start seeing cases it explodes.”

“Our healthcare system will be overwhelmed if we don’t do anything,” he continued.

Vogel and other public health experts say it’s important for people to continue following guidelines from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and follow Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the virus.

“Our doubling rate is just over two days, so every two days our number of cases diagnosed or not diagnosed is essentially doubling,” he said. “If you do something to slow the rate, not necessarily the total number, but the rate, then we don’t exceed our capacity to take care of people.”

“Be safe for everybody,” Vogel said. “Maintain your social distance, wash your hands, stay at home.”

Additional information on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus can be found on the CDC website — www.cdc.gov/coronavirus. Michigan has set up a hotline — 1-888-535-6136 — to answer questions about COVID-19. Questions can also be sent to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services by email — [email protected].

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© 2020 Hillsdale Daily News