President Trump on Thursday said he hoped the nation and its economy would be opening up “very, very soon, I hope.” The same day, Gov. Ron DeSantis raised the possibility that schools would reopen in Florida later this spring “even if it’s for a couple of weeks.” Still on the same day, a projection by the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, which are part of Trump’s administration, warned of a renewed spike in coronavirus cases 100 and 150 days out from the time when shelter-in-place orders are issued, if those orders are lifted after 30 days.
At the same time, local officials–Flagler County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord and Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder–are insisting that, as Lord put it Thursday, “We’re still on the upper swing, we’re not over this yet,” with the peak of the epidemic in Florida expected in the next two weeks, and the downswing being no less serious than the upswing, since it still means more hospitalization, more critical cases and more deaths. That’s been the experience in every place Covid-19 has taken a toll, and with few places spared.
“If we stop doing those things we’re going to go right back to peaking again,” Lord said, echoing the Homeland Security document even before it was revealed. “If I was a betting person I would assume we would not see school reopen in May either, and if we do, it won’t be the first of May.”
“We’re so much better off than the other counties, well, of course that has a lot to do with our size,” Snyder said on WNZF this morning, and a lot to do with people heeding “the advice of all of us to just stay put and stay home. We believe it’s working in our community.” In an interview this evening, he said: “It’s the virus that’s going to dictate the timetable for when we relax the restrictions we’re currently abiding by.”
By Friday morning, Florida had recorded 17,531 cases of confirmed Covid-19, with 42 of them affecting Flagler residents and two non-residents who were confirmed in Flagler. Flagler Beach now has three confirmed cases, so does Bunnell.
The number of new cases is not rising as it had been, but appears to have plateaued in the range of 1,100 to 1,200 new cases per day. In the state, 390 people have died, one of them a Flagler resident. The state reports 2,360 total hospitalizations. The Department of Health figures show six hospitalizations affecting Flagler cases. The figure is cumulative, meaning that it includes residents who were hospitalized and have either been discharged or, in one case, died.
The department is not releasing a figure that would specify how many people are currently hospitalized. But according to the state Agency for Health Care Administration, the state has 33 percent available hospital-bed capacity overall, with AdventHealth Palm Coast reporting 34 percent capacity at last count. Only one county in Florida–Gulf, population 16,000–has not recorded a confirmed Covid-19 case.
The largest spike of cases yet in Flagler-Palm Coast was on Thursday, with seven cases confirmed just that day (six had been confirmed on April 1), though the figure appears more striking than it really is: epidemilogists have assumed all along that the virus is much more prevalent than the number of confirmed cases show, and that the more testing is conducted, the more cases will show, especially on the upswing of the contagion. Among the cases confirmed Thursday, the youngest is a 32-year-old woman, the oldest a 67-year-old man. In all seven cases, it is either unknown whether the individuals’ infections were travel-related or it is certain that it was not, indicating that all the cases were likely the result of community transmission. That is, the virus was contracted from another person locally.
Testing has ramped up in the state and is ramping up locally, with a drive-up testing location run by AdventHealth in Daytona Beach starting today, and a drive-up testing location run by Flagler County Emergency Management, the health department and AdventHealth in Palm Coast expected to start sometime next week, with priority testing for first responders, health workers and people over 65. So far in Flagler, the department of health has confirmed that 595 tests have been administered, including 74 at AdventHealth Palm Coast.
About 10 Flagler Health Department staffers are monitoring an unknown number of residents. That figure used to be disclosed. It hasn’t been disclosed recently, locally, though statewide 13,300 people have or are being monitored by health officials.
“We have plenty of options,” Lord said. “There’s a lot of folks on social media saying there’s not enough testing going on. I would say as of this morning, that is no longer a fair statement.” He said people without underlying conditions or no symptoms should not seek tests. “As long as you have a symptom, I don’t care if it’s a little cough or a fever or you have chest congestion, there are tests that will test you. You just may have to make a little effort, make some calls, if you’re going to a doctor or urgent care center, or you can do that drive-up one down at the Speedway.”
One of those options is the drive-up testing site Emergency Management is preparing at the Palm Coast campus of Daytona State College, the mechanics of which Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland detailed this morning on WNZF as she explained what company was behind the tests themselves.
Holland introduced Tony Hoffman, CEO of Palm Coast-based Diagnostic Solutions Laboratories, one of 41 approved labs for Covid-19 testing. Holland said Hoffman “really wanted to make an impact right here in his hometown, and wanted to offer these tests locally.” So local city and hospital officials put the initiative in motion with the health department and the county to offer the testing locally.
The lab is based in the Atlanta area, though its business, sales and administrative operations are in Palm Coast. “We do molecular testing routinely,” Hoffman said. “So we felt an obligation to kind of change gears with our lab and start performing these tests as best we could to help in this pandemic.” The turn-around time for the tests will be 24 hours, and the company will input results directly into the Department of Health’s dashboard system. The quick turn-around is key to more effectively enact a health plan for those who are positive, and to release those who aren’t. Diagnostic Solutions will also be working with other local clinics to facilitate testing.
Nationwide and more regionally the conversation is beginning to shift to the steps beyond the immediate emergency and the stay-at-home orders.
Flagler County schools have been in session through remote education, reaching 99 percent of the district’s 13,000 students, Superintendent Jim Tager said this morning, and door-to-door visits for those who have not been electronically connected. The district has failed to make contact with just 39 students, Tager said–with staffers still seeking to track down those 39. No one has been laid off in the district.
“The biggest thing I probably hear about now is, what about graduation,” Tager said. “Certainly that is something that we’ve all experienced, and it’s one of the things that I pushed and have a lot of support from our faculty, staff and community. So we want to do something for our seniors. What it looks like yet I’m not exactly sure. We had an interesting press conference with the governor yesterday, that there may be some hope if we flatten the curve of getting kids back to school. But we are scheduled for graduation may 28. It’s still on our calendars. We are looking at the option of having it like we always have it, at the Ocean Center, and thinking creatively for other solutions as well, or we can do some kind of celebration for kids where they would be safe and not necessarily virtual. We want to have something that our families can participate in, and remember.”
He finished on a note of caution: “No promises, but we are working on that.”
Tager was referring to DeSantis’s hope-raising comments during his news conference Thursday–hope-raising to students, perhaps, but concerning to many officials as well.
“This particular pandemic is one where, I don’t think nationwide there’s been a single fatality under 25. For whatever reason it just doesn’t seem to threaten, you know, kids,” DeSantis said. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that as of today, five people younger than 25 have died of the disease. There is no question that younger people are at far lesser risk of developing complications or dying from Covid-19, but the that doesn’t mean younger people aren’t carriers of the very contagious virus. One reason behind school closures has been to limit the movement of children as carriers who could bring the virus back to their parents or grandparents, causing more dire consequences. With children in schools, it also means resuming parental or guardian movement to and from school on a large scale, as well as the resumption of movement by throngs of school staffers, many of them older, making social distancing in the circumstances more difficult.
On Friday, the New York Times obtained new modeled projections by the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services that conclude that stay-at-home orders, including school closures, have been very effective at reducing the rate of infection of coronavirus. But the projections, dated April 9, foresee another serious spike in the need for ventilators–a barometer of severe Covid-19 cases–beginning 100 days after shelter-in-place orders are issued, and peaking at 150 days. The spike is projected only if 30-day shelter-in-place orders are relaxed, as Trump suggested may be the case, and as DeSantis suggested may be the case with a possible resumption of school.
Shelter-in-place order, however loose in Florida, have led to a surge in constituent communications critical of local officials, especially regarding beach closures. County commissioners, city commissioners in Flagler Beach and county and city administrators have been the target of such emails. And this morning on WNZF, Snyder, the health department chief, read one from a constituent: “Keeping our Florida beaches closed is a serious government overreach. It’s wrong and you know it’s wrong. No government agent can infringe on my First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble. If you think a law is going to keep people from ever dying, you’re deluded with your own self-importance as most bureaucrats tend to get when intoxicated on their power. Regrettably, people die. The true statistics show that the flu virus typically kills tens of thousands of people each year, as does automobile accidents. The majority of people that die from the 19 virus have underlying conditions. They are dying with 19, not from 19. Grow some testicular fortitude, and state the true facts and open up our state. Stop playing god.” (David Ayres, host of the show, asked Snyder for the name. “We’ll show you after the show,” Gretchen Smith, the health department’s public information officer, told him. The department has not complied with a public record request for the email or Snyder’s response.)
The person writing Snyder restates numerous fallacies that public health officials have been struggling against throughout the Covid-19 emergency, starting with the claim that laws cannot keep people from dying: absent stay-in-place orders, the coronavirus emergency, according to one model by the Department of Homeland Security’s April 9 projection, would have infected 195 million Americans and killed over 300,000. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which produces one of the models state and federal officials rely on and cite most, shows similarly grimmer death tolls across the country without social distancing and shelter-in-place orders.
The comparison with the flu, repeated several times by the president, is inaccurate: health experts–and Covid-19’s epidemiological testament–point to a deadlier and more contagious disease, without a vaccine or treatment, with a higher rate of infection, a longer incubation period, a hospitalization rate 10 times higher than the seasonal flu, and a mortality rate significantly higher than the seasonal flu (from 0.1 to 0.2 percent for the flu, compared to 1.5 percent to 4.5 percent for Covid-19). Millions of Americans live with and manage their underlying conditions. Illnesses may aggravated them. But Covid-19’s opportunism and lethality is such that it is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands. The global toll so far has exceeded 100,000, almost a fifth of them in the United States, where cases will exceed half a million today or tomorrow.
Though the political and logistical response to the virus has been wanting at many levels, by most accounts the last thing that has lacked among public health officials and others battling the pandemic in trenches (with calls for a national monument to honor them) has been “testicular fortitude,” though the fact may be difficult to grasp for those managing immunity or indifference to the indignities of Covid-19.