Flagler County’s first-ever virtual press conference this afternoon illustrated the extent of local efforts and cooperation in battling the coronavirus emergency. But it also revealed the fissures between the state’s patchwork approach to stay-at-home orders and local officials’ desire for more. And it underscored a persistent lack of sufficient testing that would enable health officials to conduct the sort of broader surveillance testing that would enable them to better grasp the true extent of infections locally. As of today, the county had conducted a meter 178 tests, with 13 positive, because it doesn’t have the means to do more.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued the first enforceable stay-at-home orders today in Florida, but they apply only to residents in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe Counties, where 59 percent of Florida’s 5,500 cases are concentrated. The order continues the governor’s limited, gradual approach to enforcing stricter control measures intended to slow the spread of coronavirus, which had claimed the lives of 63 Floridians as of Monday, and nearly 3,000 Americans.
Jonathan Lord, Flagler County’s emergency management chief, is not enthusiastic about the patchwork approach.
“There’s limited value in ad-hoc community-by-community stay-at-home orders but much greater value in regional or statewide orders,” Lord said today during the county’s first virtual news conference on Copvid-19, as he stood at a podium at the county’s Emergency Operations Center. “A lot of it is being driven by the growth rate statewide. I think if we keep seeking exponential growth, I don’t know that his governor and his leadership will have a choice at this point in time.”
The only enforceable orders in Flagler County apply to people who go to the beach or stay in a short-term rental, or to restaurants that violate the carry-out-only orders or bars, pubs and gym that open at all. Otherwise, the local recommendations are just that–recommendations: Palm Coast has asked all residents to stay in place when possible, and the county has asked all people 65 and over to do so. But there is no measure of effectiveness in place. Lord said traffic is down, and observations around town today suggest that traffic is perhaps about 50 to 60 percent its normal volume, but traffic is not a measure of social distancing’s applicability, Lord said.
“We are well aware that all of these restrictions are having direct economic impacts on our businesses and workforce,” Lord said, “and are working with our partners to share available local, state and federal resources to those impacted.” He reiterated the importance of social distancing, saying stricter measures would follow if those were not respected. ‘
Florida’s and the nation’ infection numbers continue to skyrocket, with over 150,000 testing positive across the country–almost twice China’s total. Just 181 Flagler residents have been tested, 15 of them testing positive as of Monday evening. In the state, 56,700 residents have been tested, most of them in South Florida.
Bob Snyder, who heads Flagler County’s health department and who appeared alongside Lord at this afternoon’s news conference, urged residents to practice “social distancing to the extreme,” but offered contradictory next steps.
“The next weapon in our fight is testing, testing and testing, to determine the extent of community spread and the action required,” he said. But he acknowledged that that’s not possible: Right now Flagler is not capable of conducting the sort of testing that determines the extent of community spread. It is limited to diagnostic testing of those who come in with already-developed symptoms of 100.4 fever, cough, shortness of breath, who are hospitalized, in a nursing home or a long-term care priority. Priority is also given to first responders, including police, EMS personnel, public health and other health workers, and people who have underlying conditions. The department is limiting testing because of the national shortage on kits.
“Surveillance testing is the end goal. Right now we are still focused on diagnostic testing because of the shortage, still, of testing re-agents and the collection sample kits,” Snyder said. “But we are very, very excited about hearing about Abbot labs who are producing 50,000 test kits a day, and it takes 15 minutes for the test results to surface. We would be interested as soon as possible to start some kind of more broad-based surveillance testing. We look forward to that day.”
Any timeline about that day? “No,” Snyder said. “We don’t have a timeline.”
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday gave emergency authorization to Abbot Labs, an Illinois-based company, to manufacture what it calls “ID Now Covid-19” tests, which provide positive tests in five minutes, and negative tests in 13 minutes, according to the company.
“So Flagler County residents, our goal still remains the same,” Snyder said today. “To stifle the virus spread from person to person. There are two realistic paths to achieve this population level immunity. One path is the vaccine, which experts say is a year or more away. The other path is for the disease to work its way through the population, and for those who are positive for Covid-19, to recover, and become immune–a teflon status, so to speak.” (That of course is assuming the patient isn’t in the 13 percent group that requires hospitalization and the 1.5 percent, going by Florida’s rate, that dies.)
Snyder said “at this time the state has adequate numbers of ICU beds, and this is the case locally, at AdventHealth Palm Coast hospital,” he said.
Also appearing from remote sites at today’s press conference were County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan, County Administrator Jerry Cameron, who appeared to be speaking from his office at the Government Services Building, and Sheriff Rick Staly. “We must do the social distancing we must comply with these orders,” Staly said, reiterating his preference that people voluntarily comply rather than face the possibility of a notice to appear. He noted that in emergency situations such as hurricanes, curfews have a 99 percent compliance rate. But he said he was not suggesting that similar orders should be in place now.
This afternoon the county enacted two emergency orders that mirror state orders regarding vacation rentals and travelers from hot spots. Emergency Order 2020-03 reiterates the statewide isolation order, and additionally requires any lodging facility to maintain a report of individuals occupying a room in their facility from those areas. Lodging facilities must also provide the report under oath when requested by Florida Health, Flagler County, or law enforcement. The lodging facility must provide all guests from those areas a copy of the order, and when they receive reservation inquiries from those areas, they must inform them of the order.
While vacation rental operations are suspended, the order does not include long-term rentals, hotels, motels, inns, resorts, time shares, or non-transient public lodging facilities. Violations may be reported to the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation at 866-532-1440.
Louisiana joins New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as areas of substantial community spread of COVID-19. Individuals entering Florida from these areas must do the following: self-quarantine for a period of 14 days from entry; and, notify people in Florida with whom they have had contact with in the last 21 days that they traveled from an area of substantial community spread.
Sullivan appeared in person, from the EOC. “Normally I wouldn’t be here but I just signed another seven-day extension for our local emergency for the coronavirus,” Sullivan said, before commending the county’s team of emergency management and health officials, first responders and others in the trenches, “doing their job in spite of the dangers that they face, and they’re doing it willingly and without question.” He said he was practicing social distancing, living by himself as he does since his wife’s passing in late 2018.
“Please, this is a war, and we’re all soldiers in this war, and our job as a soldier right now is to practice social distancing,” Sullivan said. “That’s the only real benefit we have for sure that will work right now, so it’s important we keep the county safe, as it is being kept safe by our team.”