The Flagler County Health Department recorded 571 confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections in the four days between last Thursday afternoon and midnight Sunday, and expects to record 1,000 cases by Friday, setting a new weekly record since the pandemic started almost two years ago.
Infection numbers are surging across Florida, but in a 50-minute news conference this morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo not only projected a business-as-usual approach, but said testing protocols will be revised toward less testing, with testing and treatment focused on higher-risk patients, while schools are to remain open and operating under previously relaxed guidelines that de-emphasize quarantines, masking and distancing.
DeSantis not once recommended vaccination, focusing instead on monoclonal treatment, inaccurately said vaccines are ineffective in the face of omicron and ridiculed masking–he mischaracterized masking’s effectiveness–during his appearance in Broward this morning. Ladapo said “we need to unwind this testing, sort of planning on living one’s life around testing.” DeSantis said Floridians “vote with their feet.”
Local residents have been voting for testing. The Flagler Health Department’s covid-testing operation at the county airport has been as busy as during last summer’s surge. “The demand for testing has exploded,” Bob Snyder, who heads the health department, said. “More people are interested in getting tested than getting vaccinated, and of course we are doing our best to accommodate by appointment only at the airport. We’re going to be testing every single day this week, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. till noon.” On the Wednesday before New Year’s Eve alone, 180 people got tested. One out of four person is testing positive.
The surge is driven by covid’s Omicron variant, a far more infectious but, by some indications so far, less deadly variant that primarily affects the upper respiratory system rather than the lungs. But because the variant is affecting so many more people, the hospitalization numbers are still alarming, if not yet in Florida. Hospitalizations are reaching summer peaks in the country as a whole: the seven-day average on Jan. 2 totaled over 97,000 people hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of covid nationally, all but matching the summer peak, according to Our World in Data.
In Flagler, the latest figures for hospitalizations on a primary diagnosis of Covid at AdventHealth Palm Coast date back to last Thursday, when the hospital had seven covid patients. Snyder in an interview this morning said the department has been unable to update the figure since. An AdventHealth spokesperson this afternoon said that while the Flagler-specific number was not available, there were 95 patients admitted on a primary diagnosis of covid at Advent’s hospitals in Flagler and Volusia combined.
At 5 p.m., Snyder reported an updated figure: 17 patients at AdventHealth Palm Coast today on a covid diagnosis, up from seven last Thursday.
The surge is occurring just as public schools in Flagler and across Florida are preparing to welcome back students. Faculty returned to Flagler schools today for two days of training. Students return on Wednesday. A Flagler district spokesman said the same back-to-school protocols in place last semester will be followed this semester. A meeting between health department officials and school district officials was scheduled for noon today. It was cancelled.
The health department is expecting new guidelines on testing and quarantines from Ladapo imminently. Meanwhile, Snyder said–and in compliance with current guidelines from the state health department–the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations still apply.
“The data and the science does back up the fact that Omicron is less severe overall, but it is very, very contagious, more so than any other variant,” Snyder said. He underscored the continued importance of vaccination. “The reason why it’s important to get vaccination, to get boosted, is for those individuals who are immunocompromised, have chronic conditions, are obese, as examples. People who have had organ transplants, people who are elderly with chronic conditions, those are the ones that are most likely to end up in the hospital, whether it’s Omicron or any other strain and variant because it’s so contagious. It’s so easy for a younger person, a healthier person to pass it on. The whole idea is to protect our elderly citizens, to protect those who you know, are in that that state that I just mentioned, the chronic conditions, immunocompromised cancer patients, people who are transplant patients. These are the ones who we should be concerned about.”
For now in the region and in the state, Snyder said, there is no shortage of beds–as there is in other parts of the country. But Florida’s surge began only three weeks ago, and there has always been a lag between surges in infections and surges in hospitalizations.
The only boosting message from the governor and the surgeon general today, however, was to the state’s image. “I think it’s also just important to point out in terms of of Florida, you look what’s going on in other states,” DeSantis said. “They’re letting hysteria drive them to doing really damaging things. We thought that people had learned. They’re closing schools, they’re doing things that should not be done. And that is not the way you deal with this. And so, you know, we are 100 percent committed to making sure that people are able to live their lives, that our kids are able to get an education, that people’s businesses are able to operate and that people have jobs, and so that is just non negotiable.”
DeSantis spoke repeatedly about making monoclonal antibody treatment available–and repeatedly criticized the federal government for either standing in the way or monopolizing the supplies.
He also made several inaccurate or misleading statements.
“The vaccinations are not preventing infections,” he said. While it is true that vaccines offer far less defense against infection from Omicron than against previous variants (the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness against it is down to 30 percent according to a recent study from South Africa, where the variant is believed to have originated) vaccines are still very effective at what they’re intended for: preventing serious illness and death. By calling vaccines ineffective against infections, DeSantis was undermining the campaign for vaccination and overlooking the vaccines’ ultimate aim.
The governor was also grossly misleading regarding masks. DeSantis said: “You even see some of these TV doctors on CNN admitting the cloth masks are not going to stop, protect against Omicron. This is an aerosolized pathogen. It’s airborne. And so if you have a piece of cloth, it’s not going to protect. The thought of the cloth was if it was primarily through respiratory droplets. So we’re going to let parents make those decisions.” The governor was referring to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen who, on Christmas Eve, said that “Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations. There’s no place for them in light of Omicron.” But DeSantis ignored Wen’s fuller directive: “This is what scientists and public health officials have been saying for months, many months, in fact. We need to be wearing at least a three-ply surgical mask,” referring to disposable masks routinely sold in pharmacies and many retail outlets. “You can wear a cloth mask on top of that, but do not just wear a cloth mask alone.”
“If you really want no exposure, you have to wear the right type of mask,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Wall Street Journal. “Dr. Gandhi recommends N95 masks, which are certified in the U.S., or the KN95, KF94 and FFP2 masks, which are certified in China, South Korea and Europe respectively. If those aren’t available, she recommends double masking—a multilayered cloth mask tightly on top of a surgical mask. Surgical masks are made of polypropylene, which has electrostatic charge characteristics that block the virus.”
Regarding hospital admissions, he said: “Looking to see who is being admitted for Covid versus who may be admitted with Covid is going to be important to really chart the severity of what we’re seeing.” But hospitals have always made the distinction between those admitted with a “primary diagnosis of covid” versus those admitted for other reasons, and who happen to be infected.
The surgeon general said Florida can expect significant changes ahead in how the state sees the covid pandemic: “So my department’s goal is going to be to put out testing that doesn’t restrict access to testing, but reduces the use of low value testing, and prioritizes high value testing. And what do we mean by that? So high value testing is testing that’s likely to change outcomes. So, if your grandmother gets a test, that’s a much higher, much more valuable test, than the 8-year-old third graders that Los Angeles County is sending to get weekly testing. The first one is much more likely to change outcomes. So we’re going to be putting out guidance that puts more emphasis on that. And we’re going to be working to unwind the sort of testing psychology that our federal leadership has managed to, unfortunately, get much–most of the country in over the last two years. We need to unwind this testing sort of planning and living one’s life around testing. Without it, we’re going to be sort of stuck in the same cycle. So you know, it’s really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity. And to unwind this sort of–this preoccupation with only Covid as determining the boundaries and constraints and possibilities of life. And we’re going to start that in Florida.”