The most Covid-19 cases recorded by any state in any single day of the pandemic was 12,274 on April 4 in New York, when that state, and particularly New York City, were the nation’s worst hot spot. Florida shattered that record by thousands today as the state Department of Health reported a single-day high of 15,300 cases in the state’s continuing surge, with no sign of abating.
Deaths have been surging as well, totaling 469 in the past seven days, sending the seven-day average sharply higher than its early-May high of 51 and belying the often-repeated claim by Gov. Ron DeSantis, among others who are downplaying the current surge, that mortality is not as acute as it was in April.
Flagler County set a single-week record for new cases, with 104 in the seven days ending Saturday, with 20 more cases reported today and a a positivity rate of 10 percent, pointing to continued community spread in a week that saw Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach pass mandatory mask rules, but without associated penalties for violators. The county commission is expected to take up a similar measure Monday morning.
There is now little question that the surge in infections began almost immediately after reopening, with documented spread beginning to surge immediately after Phase 2 reopening, as Gov. DeSantis and others inclined to see the pandemic in ideological terms questioned or belittled serious containment measures, including mask-wearing and more careful, limited reopening, in the name of restarting the economy.
“Everyone in the media was saying Florida was going to be like New York or Italy, and that has not happened,” DeSantis had said in a triumphal appearance with Donald Trump in April, jabbing his finger at reporters. “We had a tailored and measured approach that not only helped our numbers be way below what anyone predicted but also did less damage to our state going forward.” Weeks later, DeSantis reopened Florida ahead of most states. moving on to Phase 2 reopening just after Memorial Day even as cases had begun to rise again.
DeSantis has continued either to downplay the surge or make misleading statements, as when he has attributed the surge to rising testing (New York is testing at a far higher rate but is not seeing a rise in cases, let alone a surge) or claimed as recently as last week that “we’ve stabilized where we’re at.” The state’s case total has risen more than 1300 percent since DeSantis reopened the economy. The demand on intensive case unit beds has spiked as well, especially in South Florida.
Hospital bed capacity at AdventHealth Palm Coast today was at 13 percent, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration, with ICU bed capacity at 11 percent. Covid-19 patients don’t necessarily stay at the hospital for or even part of their treatment as the hospital shifts them to different facilities.
“We had an opportunity to prepare for this surge that we’re experiencing across Florida for about two months, because we were expecting this earlier, so that put us in a much better position,” Wally de Aquino, AdventHealth Palm Coast’s chief operating officer, said on WNZF Friday. “When this first started there was a lot of issues with supplies of PPEs and ventilators, and we currently are in a much better position than we were before, and we feel that we are ready for this.” Of ventilators, he said without specifying a number that “we have more than we had in the past,” with more in reserve in a 16-hospital group in the I-4 corridor that shares supplies and balances out needs.
The Flagler Health Department is adding 40 more staffers to help with testing, case investigations and contact tracing, according to Bob Snyder, the health department’s chief.
Yet Flagler County schools, in accordance with a state order they cannot contravene, are preparing to reopen full-time for in-person instruction come August 10, with plans still being developed. A district survey conducted before the surge indicated that 28 percent of parents were leaning toward online instruction through the district’s iFlagler virtual school system. Last week the district’s individual schools contacted parents to get a more solid census of the breakdown, and was finding a lower proportion of people looking to go the online route, though solid numbers have not been released.
Cathy Mittlestadt, the new school superintendent, briefly presented a reopening plan to the school board during a workshop last Tuesday. The school board was not involved in the plan, nor was its input sought even at the workshop. The public was also not involved. Further plans are being developed, including one that could use innovative approaches to instruction, but the board is not involved in that plan, either. Mittlestadt says because the plans are not policy shifts, they don;t require board involvement, though some board members would rather be involved.
Speaking on the radio Friday, Mittlestadt said plans are in place to bring students back with safety protocols “to ensure our employees are taken care of, at the same time trying to create that optimal learning environment for our students to have in-person face-to-face instruction. I completely understand there are underlying conditions our families need to navigate through in making some personal choices, so with that we do have a virtual option where students would not come to school.”
Masks will be “encouraged” but not required on campus, even among older students and staff, even on buses or during transitions from class to class where, again, masks will be merely encouraged. Teachers will not be required to wear masks during instruction. That contrasts with St. Johns County schools–Mittlestadt’s previous posting as an assistant superintendent–where a previous plan to strongly “encourage” students to wear masks was dropped in favor of a mandatory requirement, when social distancing is not possible. The district in St. Johns gave in to pressure from parents and teachers to take a more responsible approach–responsible in the sense that public health officials, even in Flagler, have been urging the universal wearing of masks as the surest and least onerous way to quickly and efficiently reduce the spread of the coronavirus to far more manageable levels.
Mittelstadt said a mask requirement would keep some parents from sending their children to school. She did not note that the reverse would be the case as well, though the response to St. Johns’s previous, looser approach suggests that it is. Local public health officials, at any rate, are categorical about masks.
“If I had my choice between spreading people out six feet for social distancing versus them all wearing masks, hands down, I’d be voting for the masks,” Stephen Bickel, a physician and the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia county health departments, said. “That just has a dramatic effect on transmission. The spreading out, the virus part, the droplets can go more than six feet, they can go on surfaces that you touch. The masks kind of overpower the social distancing as a preventive mechanism.”
It isn’t clear why the public health officials’ recommendation is not prevailing in the district’s approach.
Much remains unclear in the school district’s plan, at least publicly, including how and the extent to which the district and the health departments will respond to an outbreak in a given school. Both district and health departments have clear protocols in place for the department’s response, but they have not disclosed the sort of specific threshold that would indicate when, for instance, a school would close, or a part of a school would close–or even the district would close–should an outbreak be detected among students or staff. “I don’t think that we’ve gotten to that detailed yet,” Snyder said. “There is a policy that has been developed and I’m sure some changes will be made going forward.”
The same holds true for the district’s reopening, as district officials have been frustrated by the dearth of guidelines from the state, and some contradictory messaging: under Phase 2, for instance–the state’s current status–schools would not normally be allowed to reopen because they exceed the 50-person limit in buildings. At the County Commission, the Flagler Beach City Commission, even the School Board, public and even staff attendance at all public meetings are strictly limited to 50 people or less. The state would have to move to Phase 3 in order to lift that limitation, though it is also possible that the state Department of Education would get a waiver and move ahead with reopening schools anyway: that, too, is not clear, though given the state’s recent Covid-19 numbers, it is difficult to imagine the state moving to Phase 3.
“Conditions are changing daily with this virus and we’re being very mindful of that in trying to adjust our expectations and safety protocols” ahead of Aug. 10, Mittelstadt said.