Hillsdale Hos­pital has set up a tent to test patients and staff for COVID. COURTESY | Facebook

As the COVID-19 death toll in the United States approaches 180,000 people, the pan­demic is under control in Hillsdale County, according to Hillsdale Hos­pital CEO J.J. Hod­shire.

Since March, Hillsdale County has seen 294 cases and 26 deaths, including six new cases in the last week, according to Rebecca Burns, health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Com­munity Health Agency. Michigan has reported more than 100,000 cases and more than 6,600 deaths.

The majority of Hillsdale cases have been tracked to their origins and there is no com­munity out­break, said Hod­shire. 

Ini­tially, many Hillsdale cases stemmed from the Hillsdale County Medical Care Facility, an elder care home that saw several deaths early in the pan­demic. Burns added the facility is testing their staff on a “routine basis.”

The current spread — the county has added six new cases since Aug. 21 — is mainly com­munity-acquired. People in the com­munity who are “choosing to do whatever they do, are getting exposed,” Burns said.

On campus, an inter­de­part­mental team was assembled in mid-May to determine a back-to-school plan.

“We wanted to bring stu­dents back. We’re called to be here. We’re called to be in com­munity together,” said Brock Lutz, director of Health Ser­vices and a member of the team. 

Many col­leges and uni­ver­sities have closed or mostly closed their cam­puses this fall, including Uni­versity of Michigan-Flint, Michigan Tech­no­logical Uni­versity, and Jackson College. 

The team spoke with epi­demi­ol­o­gists, orga­ni­za­tions, and lead­ership at the Hillsdale Hos­pital. They deter­mined the best solution was masking stu­dents for two weeks so “it’s more easily deter­mined who is symp­to­matic and we’ll isolate those people,” Lutz said.

After two weeks, and if every­thing goes according to plan, Lutz said he hopes restric­tions can be eased. 

“We want to take a tough approach because we want to do this. We want to stay here,” Lutz said. “If we have to incon­ve­nience our­selves to do it, so be it.”

On Aug. 1, the college announced that a staff member had tested pos­itive for the virus. The team imme­di­ately inter­viewed the indi­vidual. People who had been in sus­tained contact with the indi­vidual were quar­an­tined. No other staff members have tested pos­itive for the coro­n­avirus. 

At Hillsdale Hos­pital, there have been no trans­mis­sions of the virus from patients to staff or vice versa, said Hod­shire. He credited mandatory masking and the hospital’s screening station that vets vis­itors and employees for symptoms before entering the 40-bed hos­pital. 

“During this whole period, we’re very proud of our staff who have taken the nec­essary pre­cau­tions and taken this extremely seri­ously,” Hod­shire said. “Through this effort we’re able to ensure our patients are safe all the time.”

Hod­shire made waves in late April when he signed an open letter to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, asking her to reverse her exec­utive order that banned elective surg­eries in the state. Whitmer claimed the ban on non-essential oper­a­tions was to mit­igate the spread of the virus.

Hod­shire noted that deci­sions like that cannot be made wide­spread because some counties had less than 10 cases and no out­break. Without the ability to conduct pro­ce­dures and surg­eries, local hos­pitals suffer finan­cially and face closure. The letter notably said, “When rural hos­pitals close, people die.”

Hillsdale Hos­pital makes 60% of its revenue from the oper­ating room and before changes were made to the order, it was pro­jected to cost the hos­pital $10 million in a three month period and have a “sig­nif­icant impact on our ability to stay viable in the future,” Hod­shire warned.

The exec­utive order expired and hos­pitals are con­ducting “non-essential” oper­a­tions again, but many rural hos­pitals are still strug­gling finan­cially. A 2019 study dis­covered that death rates in sur­rounding com­mu­nities sky­rocket by nearly 6% after a rural hos­pital closes— this was before the 2020 pan­demic.

“You cannot broad-brush this closure to every hos­pital in Michigan, it’s not fair,” Hod­shire said of the now-expired exec­utive order. “If I was sitting in the shoes of a pres­ident of a Detroit hos­pital, I’d be nervous, but I’m in rural Michigan.”

One impact Hod­shire has seen over the past few months is people not going to the hos­pital over COVID-19 fears, despite needing to for other health reasons. 

“People are afraid. We’re seeing sicker patients than we ever have before,” he said. “The hos­pital right now is the safest place you can be because we’re taking sig­nif­icant extra pre­cau­tions.”

Busi­nesses across the state have struggled over the past few months. The Hillsdale Daily News reported in April that most busi­nesses had scaled back oper­a­tions and staffing and many had closed their doors. 

Hillsdale Eco­nomic Devel­opment Coor­di­nator Kelly LoPresto said most Hillsdale busi­nesses were making about 20 percent of their normal sales during the height of the pan­demic. 

A May survey by the Small Business Asso­ci­ation of Michigan found 14 percent of the organization’s members were not con­fident they would survive through the pan­demic and 60 percent had already laid off at least one employee. 

“Busi­nesses in our com­munity have worked very hard to think outside of the box during this time,” LoPresto said. “Some changed their hours, some started deliv­ering … they were willing to do what they could to provide to their cus­tomers.”

In just two Michigan counties, Ottawa and Allegan, 852 small busi­nesses reported being neg­a­tively affected by the events and lock­downs sur­rounding the virus. Some Hillsdale busi­nesses still haven’t been able to reopen and the current limits on seating capacity are still hurting bottom lines.

These busi­nesses are eager for the school year to begin, which brings thou­sands of cus­tomers to the area.

“These local busi­nesses are happy to see stu­dents back in town,” LoPresto said. Many local shops saw relief over the summer when a great influx of cus­tomers came during the college’s grad­u­ation weekend in July.

In fact, the July 18 Hillsdale com­mencement cer­emony not only aided the local economy, but has also not con­tributed to the spread of the virus, or even created a single case.

Both Burns and Hod­shire agreed there have been no cases linked to the event — despite Whitmer saying she was “gravely con­cerned” about the in-person event and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel calling it a vio­lation of the law because more than 100 people attended. 

The event fea­tured socially dis­tanced seating, tem­per­ature screenings, and masks.

“[The college] imme­di­ately engaged us, took every rec­om­mended pre­caution we gave them, and there has been no spread of COVID from that event,” Hod­shire said. 

Staff members of the college and the hos­pital have worked dili­gently together to plan and prepare for the school year to go as suc­cess­fully as grad­u­ation. This includes mea­sures such as teachers, stu­dents, and staff wearing a mask for the first two weeks. 

“We’re not doing this out of some oblig­ation or fear,” Lutz said. “We’re doing this out of love.”