“I think we’re running out of people,” Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler County Health Department, said archly this morning. He was referring to the sharp decline of confirmed covid cases in Flagler and Florida in the last two weeks. The week ending today had 215 cases, almost half the number last week. Cases have also fallen sharply in schools, as have hospitalizations, though hospital capacity remains strained.
“Herd immunity comes from vaccinated people and people a past history of Covid,” Bickel continued. “There was a national blood survey of antibodies to covid a couple of weeks ago and it showed 83 percent in that particular sample so we may be getting up to those numbers.” The study Bickel was referring to, published on Sept. 2 in the JAMA Network, analyzed 1.44 million blood samples from areas representing 74 percent of the American population from July 2020 to May 2021, before the delta variant’s wave. (The samples were taken every month from approximately 132,000 people in all 50 states.)
The study found that in July 2020, 3.5 percent of samples had antibodies resulting from an actual covid infection. By May 2021, the proportion had risen to 20.2 percent. When vaccine-induced antibodies were added to the mix, the proportion rose to 83.3 percent. That figure could only have increased significantly since the delta variant swept (and continues to sweep) across the country. The study nevertheless cautioned: “Despite weighting to adjust for demographic differences, these findings from a national sample of blood donors may not be representative of the entire US population.”
Deaths from Covid in Florida continue to accumulate at a seven-day average of 445 people per day, for a total of 53,105 people, the fourth-highest total among the 50 states, but the tenth-highest in proportion to the population–and rising.
Cases reported by the Flagler County school districts have dropped significantly: just four cases reported on Thursday, for example, all among students (no staffers). The previous Thursday, the district had reported 17 cases among students, none among faculty and staff. For the week ending Thursday, a total of 50 cases were reported among students and staff–not a low number, but relative to previous week, a significant relief.
Still, the district has been struggling with crippling faculty and staffing shortages, including 77 district vacancies as of last Tuesday, according to one school board member. “We can’t even fill the positions that we have,” Board member Jill Woolbright said Tuesdayt at the end of a board meeting. “There are 77 positions open right now. There have been years where you had to wait months for a position to be posted. We have had anywhere from 60 to 90 positions ever since before school started. As soon as we hire new teachers, other teachers quit. We have teachers that were on the job or one day and left. We have teachers that were on the job two days, two weeks, and left. We can’t keep employees. And I know that remote sounds good on your end, but you have to think about all the consequences. The teachers, they can’t. They told us, the teachers union told us they cannot do it.”
Almost every week for the past year and a half or more, Bickel has joined Bob Snyder, the director of the local health department, for a radio update on the pandemic on WNZF’s Free For All Friday, his reports keeping time with the grimmer or brighter curves of the pandemic’s waves. He could say today that the fourth and most severe wave, for Florida, is nearly over.
“It sure looks like it,” he said. But that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. “What plateau level we get to, whether it goes down to a really low level or just kind of some moderate baseline level like 100 cases a week or something: Keep in mind, we were at 10 or 20 cases a week in the spring of 2020 and we were all concerned about it. So we’ve gotten used to these higher numbers. But hopefully it’ll get under 100 in the next week or two. We could be in for a quiet period like we were last summer.”
Flagler had a brief, quiet early summer: case loads fell below triple digits to stay the week of May 15, and bottomed out in the 30s the last week of May and the first week of June, only to start creeping back up at the end of June, then rocketing up into a fourth wave after July 4.
In other words, the deepening case troth is yet another opportunity for people to collectively lessen the chance of another wave and lessen the chance of another mutation, and individually to lessen the chance of chronic infections that still in and of themselves, and for the unvaccinated, carry the same risk of complications as before the fourth wave–a risk now somewhat but not entirely mitigated by the prevalence of antibody treatments like Regeneron.
“We still need to encourage everyone to please get vaccinated,” Snyder said. “For those that are on the fence, please reach out to your primary care physician and and talk us and we can walk you through it. We’re definitely still encouraging still vaccinations,” the one mitigation strategy that is preventative and works for all.
That’s not working out too well: as cases have fallen, and with it the urgency and hospital overloads, vaccinations have declined sharply again in the county. There were just 296 shots administered in the week ending today, the lowest total since last winter, and Flagler remains only at 56 percent in total population fully vaccinated, the same rate as in the state as a whole.
And unquestionably, Bickel said, Flagler remains a high-transmission area, meaning that this is not the time to take off masks. “We’re going from extremely high to high,” Bickel said. The covid positivity rate, Snyder said, “is still too high.”
As of Thursday, there were 23 people hospitalized at AdventHealth Palm Coast on a primary diagnosis of Covid, a number that during last winter’s wave would have been considered quite high. It only looks better now in relation to the nearly 100 people hospitalized with covid just a few weeks ago. An AdventHealth statement in a Q&A issued Thursday makes the point: “While we are experiencing a downward trend, hospital capacity continues to be high. Our hospitals are designed in such a way that spaces are flexible and expandable. AdventHealth has an extensive health care system in place in Central Florida so we can locate patients to the facility that best matches the level of care they need.”