It was a festive atmosphere Tuesday afternoon in a classroom of Flagler County’s Emergency Operations Center, temporarily converted into a shooting gallery: over the course of an hour, some 30 people, most of them firefighter-paramedics, some of them Department of Health employees, sat for their first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine, Moderna edition.
It might well have been a New Year’s Eve party, flush with an elixir more favored than Veuve Clicquot these days, and in ways more meaningful than Thursday’s more official eve: to hear the likes of Bob Snyder, Jonathan Lord and Caryn Prather speak–three of the county’s most involved figures in the past 10 months’ campaign to contain the virus–it really was the beginning of a new year. It was the first time all year they could all speak with genuine optimism about what’s ahead, despite weeks more of difficulties and grim numbers.
“Everyone is so excited,” Snyder, who heads Flagler County’s health department (a state, not a county, agency), said. “I did my 15 minutes. No negative reactions. I feel great. I have no known allergies to vaccines I’ve taken in the past, or adverse reactions. So we’re good to go. I think the same thing can be said about the 10 who preceded me here today.” He’d just been shot, and showed his Centers for Disease Control-imprinted vaccination card, about the size of a credit card, with his name, date of birth, date of his first shot, and location where he was inoculated. He must get his second shot in three weeks for the vaccine to reach its 95-percent effectiveness.
At that point, Snyder, like almost all those who take the vaccine, will not be immune from catching the coronavirus, but he will be immune from developing Covid-19, the illness that results from a coronavirus infection. Put another way, he will not get sick, he will not be hospitalized, he will not die of Covid-19.
But Snyder wasn’t doffing his mask or taking any fewer protections. First, he hasn’t had his second shot. Second, he’s still at risk. “It typically takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity after vaccination,” a CDC briefing states. “That means it’s possible a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and get sick. This is because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.”
Key questions are still unanswered about the vaccine. Will it prevent you from catching the virus? Not yet known. Will it prevent you from spreading the virus to others? Not yet known for sure, but likely not. Will it give you lifetime immunity? Not likely, but the length of immunity it provides is not yet known.
All those unanswered questions are the reason why people who have been vaccinated must still follow current guidelines of mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent handwashing. Those guidelines are in place as much to provide protection for the individual as for those around him and her, and until herd immunity is achieved. That’s not expected until late spring or early summer.
But none of those factors diminish the importance of getting vaccinated–they accentuate that importance, since herd immunity is the goal–or dim the celebratory atmosphere of the glimmering beginnings of the post-Covid era.
“This makes my new year happier, significantly happier,” Lord, who heads the county’s emergency management division, said. “It’s the start of the end.” He was in the room to witness the vaccinations and lend his hands to metaphoric clapping for the occasion, though by the governor’s order he was not allowed to be vaccinated: the governor has limited early-round vaccinations to health care workers with front-line exposure to the virus, followed by people 65 and over. It’s still not clear when people 65 and over can start getting vaccinated.
On the other hand, the federalized system in place to vaccinate all residents and staffers at assisted living facilities and nursing homes has begun in Flagler, with Walgreens and CVS assuming that responsibility. Residents and staff at Grand Oaks, the rehabilitation facility on Palm Coast Parkway, received their first dose already. Flagler Health and Rehabilitation, another facility, is scheduled for Jan. 6.
The county and the health department have been getting a large number of calls from residents wanting to know when and where they can get their vaccines. While those questions still have no answers, the county on Monday will open a call center, serviced by three volunteers, to answer calls daily during business hours, Lord said.
“The inventory that we have weekly is going to determine how many doses we can provide,” Snyder said. The county is currently operating on just 1,000 doses. It’s not known when the next delivery will be, or how many doses it will consist of. The doses are separate from an additional batch of about 1,000 that went to AdventHealth Palm Coast for the hospital’s own staff of about 1,000. “But eventually there’s going to be more than two companies providing the vaccine, so we expect to have a decent supply.”
Lord had appeared before county commissioners back in February, before the first coronavirus case was near Flagler, to warn of the pandemic’s coming effects in more dire terms than anyone else around him used. He predicted “thousands” of local infections before there’d been a single one, and warned of a far more rampant and dangerous disease than appearances let on at the time. He was dead on. (The county surpassed 3,500 confirmed infections last week, with 50 deaths attributed to the disease.)
Lord has continued to appear before commissioners every two weeks since to brief them on the latest numbers, appearances that on many occasions took a surreal dimension. Lord would infallibly exhort everyone to wear masks as one of the only low-cost, highly effective ways to lower the spread of the virus. But it was many months into the pandemic that county commissioners, some of whom had publicly ridiculed mask-wearing, began wearing them at meetings (some of them still inconsistently and often improperly).
Prather also got her inoculation, though starting today she’ll be the one administering it. Prather was one of the chief organizers of the last 10 months’ Covid-testing operations at Daytona State College and the county fairgrounds. Once supplies permit it, she’ll be on the road again to administer vaccines to those who can’t make their way to a vaccination station. The health department also may go on the road with vaccination events, once supplies make it possible, whether to churches or shopping centers. The department will be using the Flagler Education Foundation’s Connect Bus to carry out those events.
Prather, too, was in a celebratory mood.
“Well, this is a big thing,” she said of the vaccine’s arrival. “We’ve talked about it for how long? We’ve seen so many people die, we’ve had friends die, family members die. This is like a positive of this terrible illness. So it’s a good thing.” Of her own shot, she said, “I feel a little safer for myself, my family and my friends, and for the patients that I work with out there.”
Today, Prather was circulating to all the county’s and Palm Coast’s fire stations, administering the vaccine to firefighter-paramedics throughout. On Saturday, the health department and emergency management will be administering more vaccines at a larger event at the county fairgrounds off Sawgrass Road in Bunnell.
That event will be organized the same way that subsequent vaccination systems will unfold there, once the vaccine is available to the broader public. Individuals will drive to the fairgrounds and go through four stations in their cars. At the first station, they’ll be handed paperwork and documentation about the vaccine, including the consent form the patient must sign. At the second station, registered nurses will ask about 10 questions in a pre-vaccine screening, such as whether the person has had adverse reactions to vaccines in the past, or is immunocompromised. Station three is the vaccination. Station four is where the individual will be monitored as he or she waits for 15 minutes, just to make sure there are no adverse reactions. The person can then drive away.
The vaccine comes at no cost. But those who want to be vaccinated must provide their name to the health department. It’s a matter of documentation and safety, to prevent double-vaccinations, which can be harmful, and to document the number of vaccinations in Florida Shots, the state’s immunization portal. The information is confidential, and is not accessible to the public.
As the vaccination session was winding down. Lord was asked jokingly whether herd immunity was likely by 5 p.m. “Yes,” Lord said, without missing a beat. “I won’t say what day. You can quote me on that. Some day, by 5 p.m., yes.”
“Many months from now,” Snyder, ever the stickler for accuracy, said.
The New Year vaccination party–for that’s what it proved to be in all but name–was also both reflection and celebration of the county’s own multi-headed effort to battle the virus. “All this, this reflects partnerships, it truly does” Snyder said. “Health department, community paramedic program, paramedics, Jonathan and his team, emergency management, we together have orchestrated, planned and made decisions with respect to community testing, and now vaccination administration. We’ve been doing this every step of the way.”
And, for now anyway, there was not a single anti-vaxxer in sight.