Flagler Palm Coast High School Principal Tom Russell told his faculty by email on Monday afternoon that he had contracted Covid-19 , and today described his illness bluntly as “nothing like the flu.”
“These are the symptoms that I have experienced: fever, chills, painful cramps, loss of breath, extreme fatigue, sore throat, excessive coughing, headaches, a loss of focus, problems communicating when speaking. I never had a flu act in this way,” Russell wrote in an email addressed to the “Bulldog Community,” including parents and students. His statement appeared intended as an unqualified repudiation of inaccurate but rampant claims, especially on social media, by deniers of the potential severity of Covid-19 and its often debilitating and long-lasting effects on those who survive it.
Russell’s revelation occurs as cases in Flagler and in Florida are rising sharply and the surge cascading over much of the nation, now reaching catastrophic proportions in many states, is beginning to ripple in Florida: the state on Sunday exceeded 10,000 cases in a single day for the first time since the waning of the summer wave, and recorded over 7,000 cases Tuesday and almost 8,000 cases today, signaling that the third wave was, in fact, here.
In Flagler County, case loads have been above 100 per week for the last four successive weeks, and have totaled 87 in just the first four days of the current week, with 34 cases confirmed today. Hospitalizations at AdventHealth Palm Coast have risen steadily for the past two weeks, with nine patients hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of Covid-19 as of this afternoon. All the hospitalizations since Nov. 11 are in the 45 to 74 age range, according to data extrapolated from the Florida Department of Health’s Flagler reports.
The county has recorded 41 deaths attributed to the disease, the 41st this week.
After a few weeks’ calm when cases hovered in the range of five to six per week, the Flagler County school district since Nov. 1 has been experiencing a surge of cases–13 the week of Nov. 1, then 18 last week, including five cases on a single day at Matanzas High School, and 16 cases in just the first three days of this week, including five cases on a single day at Old Kings Elementary, which had been the site of a spike at the beginning of the school year but had been spared further cases for weeks. (The numbers are tabulated by Rogue Flagler Schools, a Twitter account, based on official documentation verified by FlaglerLive). An assistant principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School was also diagnosed this week, with contact tracers continuing investigations. But the majority of cases, by a more than 2-to-1 ratio, affect students.
Earlier this week, the FPC wrestling team posted on its Instagram account a picture of students practicing at FPC–ironically under the pre-Covid “BE RESPOINSIBLE” phrase written in large letters on an overhang–without masks, without social distancing, and without heed to the number of people in any single place. “Sounds like your problem is with the FHSAA, we’re not doing anything different than any other wrestling team,” Zach Sanford, a coach, wrote in response to a critical tweet.
State government and state agencies have in fact taken a lax, almost indifferent, approach to the virus: Gov. DeSantis ordered all Covid-19 restrictions lifted in the state at the end of September despite warnings that it would all but invite another certain and possibly deadlier surge. He lifted capacity limits in all businesses and government meetings and forbade local governments from enforcing mask mandates, raising fears among state health experts that the surge in Florida could eventually overwhelm hospitals.
DeSantis’s approach is giving succor to anti-mask activists who continue to hound local governments, including in Flagler and Palm Coast, to remove mask requirements while spreading dangerous falsehoods about masks’ supposed ineffectiveness. The Centers for Disease Control disagrees. In its latest briefing on the matter, published this week, the CDC says categorically that the more people wear mask the more effective the fight against the coronavirus. “Seven studies have confirmed the benefit of universal masking in community level analyses,” the briefing concludes. “Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation.”
The state through its Covid-19 portal has also continued to mislead readers about deaths resulting from the disease, posting a graph that would seem to indicate a steady decline in the number of daily deaths reported. The impression is false, relying as it does on a grim technicality to continuously suggest falling death counts: the death tally is confirmed through medical examiners and other official sources that usually take days or weeks to provide that confirmation. So the latest number of confirmed deaths will always appear to be low (it is five today, seven yesterday) when in fact, just a few days from now, the numbers will be in the 50 to 60 deaths range, and likely higher, now that case loads and positivity rates are rising rapidly. The state has also continued to exclude the number of people confirmed positive in Florida if they are not Florida residents, though the case loads are in the state, and may end up in the state’s hospitals.
DeSantis had been hinting at ending granting schools discretion to allow distance learning, the way it’s allowed in Flagler County schools. But today, perhaps spurred by the rising case load, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the alternate, remote education models will continue past January and to the end of the schoolyear.
“From the top down in this state, that will absolutely happen. There is no flexibility for anything but that,” Corcoran told the State Board of Education. He expects to release another order addressing the pandemic by the end of this month.
The reopening of brick-and-mortar classrooms, which were shuttered during the early stages of the pandemic this spring, became a political flashpoint after Corcoran ordered school districts to offer in-person instruction five days a week or be penalized financially, the News Service of Florida reported. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran have maintained that families need to have the option of choosing face-to-face instruction or distance learning for children, arguing that keeping students away from school can have damaging impacts on students’ physical safety, mental health and educational progress.
Board member Michael Olenick pressed Corcoran on the need to allow districts to keep offering distance learning, especially as the number of Covid-19 cases has spiked in recent days. Since Florida’s first coronavirus cases were reported in March, Covid-19 has gone “from abstract to reality, and with that is a fear,” Olenick said, adding, “That fear is warranted.”
But Corcoran assured Olenick, a former general counsel for the Florida Department of Education whose term on the board expires at the end of the year, that DeSantis “will take nothing less than full parental choice.”
Corcoran indicated his forthcoming order also will address students who may be falling behind academically because of the pandemic. “We need to make sure there are either massive interventions for children or that they move to a different modality of learning,” he said.
But the pandemic is also taking a toll on those attempting to manage it within state mandates as quarantines, infections and anxieties continue to subvert attempts at normalcy.
Russell, hired from Volusia County in June 2019, very quickly won the admiration and support of faculty and staff at FPC with his candor, visibility and accessibility and his high-energy championing of a school he’s made his own as if he’d led it for years. He’d quarantined for two weeks several weeks ago shortly after school resumed in person and FPC was among those hit with somewhat of a spike. He is the district’s and one of the county’s highest-profile persons to be diagnosed or at least to speak of it openly: some high-ranked local officials have been diagnosed but have chosen to remain silent about it.
“This morning I tested positive for Covid19,” he wrote his staff on Monday. “It has shocked my family because of my vigilance about practicing safeguards. Actually, everyone here thought I had bronchitis. I had some physical struggles this past weekend and the Seminoles game did not help matters. I am incredibly grateful that I was removed from all of you when I was quarantined last Monday.” That was Nov. 9. “I am thankful that out of the blue my pulmonary doctor called this morning not knowing of my results and has hopped right on this case. Think positive, think healing, move forward.” Russell has continued to work from his home in DeLand.
“So far this is a mild case of Covid-19 if there is such a thing,” he continued. “Allow me to be blunt this is nothing like the flu! Covid wrecks the body in so many ways and never the same way twice.” He then described his symptoms, and cautioned against trusting postings on social media. “I want to thank the FPC community for reaching out to me with well wishes. I love FPC. I am excited to go to work every day because I love our students and staff. I cannot wait to return to FPC following my recovery.”
In his email to staff, he’d concluded as public health officials have been urging since March: “Be vigilant folks, wear a mask, wash your hands and stay humble.”