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Rising COVID cases and positivity rates in Southwest Michigan cause for concern

man gets covid test
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Higher case counts and higher COVID-19 test positivity rates in Southwest Michigan are causing concern among some public health officials.

Over the past seven days, 14.3% of COVID tests in St. Joseph County have come back positive. In Branch County, the seven day average positivity is 17.4%. In neighboring Hillsdale County, that number is even higher, at 18.3%. 

Rebecca Burns is the health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Health Agency, which serves all three counties. She says the increased cases have put a great deal of strain on the health department.

"We’re right at that tipping point right now where the positive cases that are coming are going to overwhelm our current case investigation staff, and make it difficult to contact every positive person, and get their close contacts quarantine and provide that positive individual with the information they need to protect others," she said.

The concern over climbing cases and limited capacity is compounded by concerns about low vaccination rates, and widespread hesitancy to get the vaccine in the tri-county area, Burns says.

"We have quite a bit of resistance to vaccinations. Because our vaccination rates is low, that's one of our biggest concerns. That leaves many more people at risk for developing COVID," she said. "The large amounts of misinformation that are shared person to person on social media and other platforms is certainly concerning as well, because it does cause people to move in a direction that is higher risk and doesn't provide protection against the virus in most cases."

Burns says staff at the health department are stretched thin, and she's not sure what steps they can even take to reduce the spread—other than encouraging people to get the vaccine. She says vaccine rates have levelled out in the tri-county area, but they're thankful for each new person who gets the shot.

"I think we know what the answer is, the answer is to get vaccinated, and if you're not vaccinated, wear a mask when you're out in public. We just see so many folks resistant to both of those ideas, that… I’m really not sure how to move us past continued infection," she said.

Burns says the BHSJ Health Agency has no plans to institute a mask mandate of any kind, including those for K-6 students in schools that other counties have implemented. Kalamazoo and Allegan Counties, also in Southwest Michigan, are among those that have implemented K-6 mask mandates for the coming school year.

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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