The Flagler Health Department today announced three more covid-related deaths in Flagler County: a 73-year-old man who died on Sept. 4, a 73-year-old man who died on Sept. 6, and a 53-year-old man who died on Sept. 7, bringing the total number of Flagler County residents’ covid-related deaths to 19. At least two other non-residents have died in Flagler due to the coronavirus.
Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder revealed the numbers today as part of a larger set of indicators that are yet again dimming the improving outlook of the last few weeks. Flagler is experiencing a renewed and serious spike in positive cases–184 in the last 14 days, with a concurrent spike in positivity. Flagler saw 25 new cases last Thursday, 26 on Friday, 19 on Saturday, 41 on Sunday and 10 on Labor Day. The positivity rate as calculated by the Flagler Health Department is now back up to 7.63 percent, well above what even the local health department had previously considered safe for communal activities, including schools, to operate.
There is a roughly two-week lag between the time cases begin to propagate and the time they begin to show statistically in health department reports. The spike is occurring as the third week of school begins in Flagler, and is in part powered by a spike in cases among children under 17 and in schools.
Between Friday and Tuesday alone, Old Kings Elementary School informed parents there of at least six students and one teacher testing positive, bringing the school’s total to 14–11 students and three staff members, based on a count of letters issued from the school. Two kindergarten classes were quarantined (the children sent or kept home for the next two weeks). See the zipped file of letters here.
The Flagler school district last Friday reported that at least 14 positive cases affected students and staff (three staffers and 11 students), though the total was an undercount: an independent analysis verified by FlaglerLive and based on actual letters issued, citing positive cases, totaled 14 students and four staff members before the district issued its Friday count, and not including two staff members and one student at Imagine School at Town center, or the additional four students and four staff members district-wide added to the tally since Friday.
In all, there have been 28 positive cases in the Flagler County school district through today, the independent analysis shows–eight staffers and 20 students.
The state Health Department’s figures about Flagler infections among children show double the number: On Aug. 25, the day after school reopened in Flagler, the state had reported a cumulative 115 cases among children younger than 18 in the county, with a positivity rate of 13.1 percent. Today (Sept. 8), the state reported 137 cases in that group, or a total of 22 cases. That doesn’t mean the 22 cases are school-related: many children are home-schooled, many parents are keeping children from school, and some children are younger than school-age, though that proportion is not broken down by the state report.
The concern for the local health department is the overall picture, and the enveloping trends.
“For the first time in a while, emergency room visits related to COVID 19 like symptoms [have] also turned upward,” Snyder wrote in an email this afternoon. “This will most likely result in increased hospitalizations for C-19. Most of last week, we noted around eight hospitalizations and yesterday there were 12. Also, the Rt value for the State of Florida has increased slightly to 1.02 from .91 the previous 2-3 weeks.” (The “Rt value” is the infectious rate of the disease: if it’s at 1, it will propagate at current rates. If it’s below 1, new infections will decline. If it’s above 1, new infections will begin increasing exponentially. The Rt value we have followed, however, shows Florida still just under the 1 mark.)
“Despite spikes seen the last 5 days, Flagler had been on a downward trend with the majority of the indicators for several weeks,” Snyder said. “We still have the lowest case rate per capita in the State and 3rd lowest death rate per capita. I am referring to Cases per 10,000 and Deaths per 100,000.”
Snyder is accurate as far as cumulative figures are concerned: Flagler’s numbers since March give it the lowest per-capita rate in Florida. But in the last seven days, Flagler is actually 29th out of 67 counties, with 142 cases per 100,000–a rate that places it ahead of Broward, Palm Beach, Brevard, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. Florida as a whole has the second-highest per capita rate in the nation, though in the last seven days its rate is 16th in the nation.
Snyder is appearing before the Flagler County Commission on Monday in part to report the numbers and the new spike, in part to recognize the efforts of first responders, health care workers and local media “for being instrumental in communicating public health measures and data, governmental entities (e.g. resolutions on mask wearing),” and to thank the community for following mask-wearing rules. “Also, that we are not out of the woods yet as the recent spike has shown, especially with flu season around the corner, not to mention the peak of Hurricane season.”
Snyder’s appearance is also intended to blunt any potential criticism from an obscure but aggressively noisy and notoriously misleading group that calls itself the “Flagler Liberty Coalition.” The group, according to Snyder, has been seeking his removal and that of Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia health departments and one of the county’s chief architects, with Snyder, of the county’s comparatively successful response to the coronavirus. Bickel and Snyder led the campaign that resulted in Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach joining numerous local governments across the state with enactments of mask mandates. The county stopped short of a mandate, approving a resolution recommending the voluntary wearing of masks.
About a week ago a woman who identified herself as Lisa Perkins wrote County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen the following lines: “We demand that you call for an emergency meeting for Snyder and Bickel to be fired immediately. As Flagler County Health Dept Administrator and Medical Director, respectively, they are both spreading fearmongering, recommending continued lockdowns, and masking. All of which promote SICKcare, increased suicide and depressed economic conditions. This can’t go on any longer. Enough
is enough. We will not stand for it. We want them to be replaced with commonsense practitioners that will promote healthcare so our community may thrive.”
Perkins did not identify the “We” of her email, nor did she respond to an email requesting an interview. Several of her statements were false. The County Commission has no authority to fire either Bickel or Snyder, though it ceremoniously ratifies the health department chief’s appointment. Neither Bickel nor Snyder are “recommending continued Lockdowns.” To the contrary: both have said repeatedly that such measures as mask-wearing and social distancing are essential in order to keep the economy open and prevent a return to lockdowns. Bickel has repeatedly called the dichotomy between protecting health or protecting the economy as a false choice. Rather, he says, the only way to protect the economy is to ensure that health guidelines are followed and health departments supported in order to conduct the extensive contact tracing necessary to contain outbreaks.
“The more we can do with masks, contact-tracing and rapid testing, the less we’re going to have to rely on lockdowns,” Bickel said today. Of deniers such as those represented by the obscure coalition, Bickel said: “They don’t like people who take this seriously because there’s so much emphasis on minimizing it.” He added: “This is not partisan for me. This is just science.”
Bickel and Snyder have undeniably backed mask mandates, but mask-wearing has been proven through scientific studies to significantly limit the spread of the disease.
Snyder addressed the “coalition” on his Friday appearance on WNZF. “We understand that they are not thrilled about mask wearing at public places, the government office building, the library, and I guess they’re not fond of Dr. Bickel and myself,” Snyder said, “because I guess of what we do and what we encourage in promoting health and safety in our community, and science and evidence-based activities and mask-wearing. Everything we’ve been talking about to keep this virus from spreading and transmitting to others. We’re just doing our jobs there, Flagler Liberty Coalition, and just stay off our backs, will you? We’re health care people trying to make a difference in our community.”
“We’re doing something right everyone,” Snyder said of Flagler’s relatively low incidence of Covid.
Bickel and Snyder appear regularly on Palm Coast’s Wednesday Town Hall on Covid-19, which assembles government and health experts to disseminate the latest information relevant to the city and the county. The town halls have been anchored by Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland and have kept data and evidence at a premium.
“Our numbers are demonstrating the fact that our response has been one that our residents have not only appreciated but have supported,” Holland said. “Dr. Bickle is just a wealth of information that he supplies to myself and to others almost daily–information that he reads up on, that he speaks to his colleagues about, that really offers some very current information that has helped us navigate through these challenging times. Both he and Bob have really offered a very steady voice throughout all of these months of going through Covid. It’s been consistent.”