Last Updated: Tuesday, 11:23 a.m.
A 45-year-old Flagler Beach police officer has tested positive for Covid-19. In an unrelated development, Flagler Beach City Manager Larry Newsom fell ill and has been in self-isolation at his home since this morning, FlaglerLive learned. With one other exception–another police officer is in self-isolation–the police department is monitoring itself but is not in isolation.
Neither police nor city officials disclosed either development publicly until Tuesday.
The police officer’s infection with the coronavirus is the first case involving a public employee whose work necessarily entails contact with the public.
In a detailed interview late Tuesday morning, Police Chief Matt Doughney said the officer had been off Monday and Tuesday, reported to work on Wednesday with symptoms, and was at work for 30 minutes before being sent home. He is a patrol officer who normally would have contact with the public, but that day he did not go out on patrol.
“On the day he was sent home he only had contact with individuals here at the police department for 30 minutes and he was on days off before that,” the chief said. The officer then went to a primary care physician and was notified on Saturday of testing positive for Covid-19, Doughney said. The chief said he did not inform the public or the commission on Saturday because Department of Health Director Bob Snyder told him to wait until confirmation of the case through the Health Department, which came through on Monday afternoon. (Commissioners did not learn of the case until late Monday evening, when FlaglerLive initially published the story about the case.)
The second police officer in self-isolation was also sent home Wednesday. (He tested negative for the virus, the chief said on March 25, and was ready to return to duty.)
On Sunday, Doughney and Snyder toured the beach together ahead of their decision to close it down this morning.
“Matt and I, of course we should be concerned and the radar goes up, but the radar goes up for clinical symptoms,” Snyder said this evening. “Rest assured, with our police officer, contact tracing has begun and will continue.” He said there was no cause for quarantining the police department, nor symptomatic causes for further concern. “I don’t get that sense from Matt at all,” Snyder said, referring to concern over close contact with the officer.
Health department epidemiologists and others are conducting the contact tracing–an investigation into who the officer would have had contact with and where. Such investigations are conducted with every single Covid-19 confirmation and becomes part of the effort to trace down and control all potential infection points. “Those individuals were notified and were given guidelines just to make sure they know what symptoms to look for.” Should symptoms develop, then self-isolation is called for, and contact with a physician or the health department.
While contagion is highest in an individual with symptoms, it is still not clear, from a medical standpoint, to what extent contagion takes place in asymptomatic people. What is clearer is that chances of contagion in those instances are not near zero.
“What should I do if I was in close contact with someone with COVID-19 while they were ill but I am not sick?” one of the questions on a Washington State Department of Health FAQ states. (Washington State is one of the disease’s hardest-hit regions.) The answer: “You should monitor your health for fever, cough and shortness of breath during the 14 days after the last day you were in close contact with the sick person with COVID-19. You should not go to work or school, and should avoid public places for 14 days.” But close contact is defined as living in the same household with a person who is sick from Covid-19, caring for a Covid-19 patient, being within six feet of that person for 10 minutes or more, or being in direct contact with secretions from that person.”If you have not been in close contact with a sick person with COVID-19, you are at low risk for infection,” the department states. “You can continue to go to work and school, but should monitor your health for 14 days since the contact and stay away from others if you get sick.
Doughney did not return numerous phone calls Monday evening, so at that point it wasn’t clear what measures had been taken at the department’s offices at 204 S Flagler Avenue, or whether the department has developed contingency plans with the sheriff’s office in case any help was needed down the line.
After 10 a.m. Tuesday, Doughney issued a one-page “media release” acknowledging the confirmation of the case and that, according to Doughney’s quote in the release, “Our Officer has been at home since exhibiting symptoms last week and the Health Department is actively monitoring the Officers condition.” The release does not state when the officer was sent home and when the officer himself informed his department of his Covid-19 test, though his case had appeared listed on the Department of Health’s dashboard Monday morning.
The release outlines a series of steps the department has taken in response–closing the front lobby of the police department, placing hand sanitizers at entrances and exits, discussing social distancing at the start of each shift, taking the temperature of personnel. “Any members of the Department exhibiting Coronavirus symptoms will be sent home to self-isolate and monitor their condition,” the release states. “The areas of the Department accessed by the Officer that tested positive have been cleaned.”
The release also notes that a second officer has been isolated at home “since last week as well” because of direct contact with the officer who tested positive. The release says nothing about the officer’s contacts with members of the public.
“The reality of this situation is that First Responders are human and we’re not immune to the Coronavirus. While our Department is the first locally to have a First Responder test positive for this virus, more than likely it will not be the last,” Doughney is quoted as saying in the release.
Doughney then returned a call and spoke at length and candidly about the cases. “I’m concerned for every member of this agency and every member of the city including the citizens, all city staff,” he said. “We’re a small city and a really, really small department. Am I worried about my safety? I practice social distancing as much as I can possibly do.” Like the rest of his department, he takes his temperature in the morning–it was 96.5 this morning–and monitors himself. He and Capt. Lance Blanchette have been working seven days a week, shifts have been altered for the ranks to ensure coverage and proper rest as well, but so far there’s been no need to call on the sheriff for extra help.
“We’re prepared for the long haul as far as giving folks days off to let them rest,” Doughney said, and if the time comes when there may be a shortage of personnel, “Rick Staly is a true professional and he and I will have that conversation if I have to have it.”
The police chief said the department’s cleaning company has deep-cleaned the premises, returning over the weekend to do so, and that Blanchette himself had gone around the department with extra disinfectant on high-touch points, from keyboards to phones to door handles.
“There was no reason at this point in time for the police force to self-isolate,” Snyder said.
Two city commissioners contacted this evening appeared unaware of the situation at the police department. All commissioners and the mayor had been told in the morning that Larry Newsom, the city manager, had fallen ill and was self-isolating.
“I received a text message from Mr. Newsom earlier this morning advising that he is feeling ill, and therefore, as a precaution he will be self-isolating at his residence,” Doughney wrote the city commissioners and the mayor at 9 this morning. He did not provide further details. It isn’t clear why Newsom did not himself inform the commissioners.
“Mr. Newsom is available by cell phone and both Chief Pace and myself are working and available if you need anything,” the chief wrote the elected officials. Newsom, who, like Doughney, is usually quick to return calls, did not return repeated phone calls this evening. Pace’s cell phone’s mailbox was full and not taking further messages.
Newsom would presumably have had frequent contact with the police chief in the past few days.
The county’s total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases remained at three after the 6 p.m. update by the Florida Department of Health, but Florida’s confirmed cases continued to rise rapidly, to 1,227, with 18 deaths attributed to the disease, four more than this morning. In Flagler, there were 58 people under surveillance.
The three confirmed cases involve two women, 59 and 72, and a man, 45. At least two of the three cases–the 45-year-old police officer and the 72-year-old woman, who was being treated out of the county–have direct connections to Flagler Beach: the woman lives there, the officer works there.
Jonathan Lord, the county’s emergency management director, said this evening he had not been informed of any first responders having to be taken off work for self-isolation.
So far, 55 Flagler County residents have been tested through the Department of Health’s laboratories, with 52 testing negative.
Monday’s earlier developments are here.