Berrien health officials continue to urge mask use ahead of school year

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ST. JOSEPH, Mich. -- Berrien County health officials strongly encouraged universal masking in schools during a Facebook live Wednesday.

In Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, class starts just after Labor Day and the school board already decided to require students and staff to wear masks.

But they’re in the minority of Berrien County schools.

Brandywine, for example, starts class on Monday and does not have a mask mandate.

Meanwhile, the county remains in high transmission, a threshold where under CDC recommendations everyone should be masking up.

“Why are we back in this situation? It’s primarily the Delta variant, which is twice as infectious,” said Dr. Rex Cabaltica, Berrien County Health Department Medical Director.

Berrien County is in another week at a high COVID-19 transmission rate.

A 10 percent positivity rate puts a county in high transmission – Berrien is at 11.5.

A weekly average of 100 cases per 100,000 also meets that threshold – Berrien is seeing roughly 140. 

“Our transmission is up 10 fold over a month, our hospitalizations are up four fold, we’ve been here before, we were here in November and April,” said Dr. Loren B. Hamel, Spectrum Health Lakeland President.

K-12 schooling is about to start up again, but the health department is still holding off on any mask mandates. 

“Masking is going to be key and ideally because schools are not necessarily split up between grade 6 and lower or 7 and above, that may mean the whole school system needs to mask,” said Dr. Cabaltica.  

It’s something they hope individuals will still choose to do regardless of if it’s required.

“I know it’s frustrating, you hear wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, all of these recommendations have changed based on what the virus is doing,” said Dr. Hamel.

Berrien County has 55 percent of those 12 and up with their first dose of the vaccine.

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