Flagler County’s first drive-up Covid-19 testing site tested 47 people on Tuesday and today, and the county’s emergency management’s first food drop for the needy provided food to over 400 households on Tuesday at two county locations as local officials continue to contend with the consequences of a community largely immobilized by the coronavirus , and by uncertainty as to when the strictest restrictions might lift.
A county official today clarified that while Flagler has registered its first confirmed case of Covid-19 at an assisted living facility or a nursing home, the case appears to have affected a staffer, not a resident. It’s still not clear whether the facility is in Flagler or not.
“We inquired about that and we were told there was not a sick patient in a long-term care facility at that time,” Flagler Emergency Chief Jonathan Lord said today. “So I would draw the conclusion that it’s a staffer, and logically the staffer would not be at work at this point.” Lord added: “It could be a resident that works in a long-term care facility, the facility may not be in our county, necessarily.”
The figures are compiled by the Florida Department of Health, which lists by county the number of cases connected to long-term care facilities. But the state does not name the facilities. The reason is unclear. Naming the facilities would not be a violation of federal or state privacy rules. But facilities may be loath to have their name connected to Covid-19 cases, and to protect their reputation, the health department so far is going along with the secrecy.
Lord said he has not been told what facility was affected, but said he was “100 percent sure” that if it had been a facility in Flagler, “we would be made aware of it. I have to believe that that would be the truth, and I hope I’m not proven wrong with that statement.”
Flagler County Health Department Chief Bob Snyder today talked about the protocols in place to stave off Covid-19 infections in nursing homes, but he didn’t speak about identifying facilities with cases. “We have someone in our health department that’s in contact with each of them on a daily basis to make sure there are no issues or concerns,” he said. “So we are watching this population very, very carefully.”
The county’s first drive-up testing site, at the Palm Coast campus of Daytona State College, administered 13 tests on Monday and 34 tests today, with results of the Monday tests expected by this evening, Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord said. The testing site was set up with AdventHealth, the health department and Palm Coast government to focus primarily on health workers and first responders showing symptoms of Covid-19. But since demand from that sector was low, tests were administered to residents at large that fit the criteria: those 65 and older with symptoms, or those with underlying conditions, also showing symptoms.
It is not a free-for-all drive-up testing site, and the number of tests are currently limited to 100. Emergency Management is involuntarily sitting on 500 additional tests only because despite daily efforts, state officials continue to deny Flagler clearance to go ahead with those particular tests. But testing options are no longer as limited as they were even last week, with new locations run by AdventHealth in Daytona Beach and more testing available at its hospital in Palm Coast, as at the local health department. So far, just over 800 people have been tested in Flagler. Today, a 60-year-old Flagler resident who had traveled to New Jersey was confirmed positive.
The food drops at Flagler Palm Coast High School and at Hidden Trails Community Park were organized hastily after Feeding Northeast Florida, the Jacksonville-based food bank, made a shipment of fresh produce available to Flagler. But county officials, who organized the food drop with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and volunteers, did not know until the truck arrived at FPC how much actual food there would be (it was about 7,000 pounds) and how many people it could serve. The fresh produce ran out, so people still in line were offered MREs (military-style Meals Ready to Eat, each of which contains enough calories for a day). Some people took the MREs, some did not, though hundreds were distributed. Some people were turned away from the food drop when the food had run out and the distribution window had closed.
Lord said the county is “reassessing” the operation, so it’s not clear whether there would be additional such food drops yet. “We’re also looking at validating the need to do this,” he said, with other organizations such as Grace Community Food Pantry and the school districts providing food packages, and with the food stamps program adapting to the emergency. “We want to get a better understanding of what others are doing and not duplicate, and also not leave gaps in the community as well,” Lord said.
Local officials are facing increasing questions from constituents about when semblances of normalcy might return, but public health officials caution that the peak of the pandemic for Florida remains more than two weeks away, around May 2 and 3, and that this is not the time to lift restrictions such as beach closures.
Snyder reiterated that caution today during Palm Coast government’s second semi-virtual town hall as he sat on the dais of the Palm Coast City Council, alongside Mayor Milissa Holland and City Manager Matt Morton. All three wore protective masks to underscore public health authorities’ message that, when in public, people should not only keep their distance from each other, but also be masked.
The panel answered questions sent in electronically by constituents and featured the presence by phone of Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia health departments, Wally de Aquino, the AdventHealth Palm Coast chief operating officer, and Tony Hoffman, CEO of Palm Coast-based Diagnostic Solutions Laboratories, where Covid-19 tests are being processed.
Flagler’s Covid-19 numbers continue to be low, but only relative to other regions: 46 total confirmed cases, seven hospitalizations and two deaths locally, compared to nearly 600 deaths statewide, 3,200 hospitalizations and 22,500 confirmed cases as of Wednesday afternoon.
The seemingly low numbers and conflicting day-to-day messages from the White House and from Tallahassee that undermine the scientific community’s consensus’ the necessity are adding pressure on local governments to lift restrictions.
“We are still ascending the curve,” Snyder said. “We have not reached the top. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation from the University of Washington is now telling us that for Florida, that date is more close to the beginning of May, May 2 and 3rd, so we do have a way to go yet. Let’s take each day at a time.” The institute had a mid-range projection of 4,748 Covid-19-related deaths in Florida by Aug. 3. The range is like a hurricane’s probability cone, the actual number–like actual path–could be on either side of the range.
Holland deferred to “unbelievably knowledgeable, professional, well-informed” officials hel;ping governments navigate those decisions, and who, she said, want to “have our community up and running as quickly as possible.”
Bickel addressed the question directly. “Part of that has to be [that] you have a process in place to control any spread in the future, so when you have small numbers of patients getting this in a community, you can do contact tracing, quarantining, almost like local epidemic control,” he said. “When it gets spread more through the community, you can’t do that. The system gets overwhelmed. So we’re trying to get back to that stage. There’s a lot of discussion now about what to do at that point. It’s coming. The general idea is that you don’t want to do this too soon. You want to virtually wipe out the spread in a community before you relax things.”
Bickel quantified it: “The number they’re talking about is when you get to 10 or so cases in a state, per day, that means most counties would have no cases each day. Then you can revert back to a more normal pattern of activity out in the community, and just concentrate on your public health efforts to contain this, find little outbreaks and snuff them out. That’s where we want to get. Hopefully fairly soon. But you don’t want to jump the gun, because if it slips and you start getting a second wave, then you have to do these whole restricted measures for several weeks to get it under control again. That would be a major setback.”
For now, with Florida continuing to add 1,000 new cases on average per day, the normalcy Bickel is projecting is not yet near.
“Where do we want to get with all this, is basically we want to get to a state that we were in, in January, where there was no Covid here,” Bickel said, “and if it was coming in, we would have the resources, with tests, personnel, knowledge in terms of strategies for testing, that we could let the community go on about its business, which South Korea more or less did, and continue an extremely aggressive surveillance testing and case-containment program so that every time we found a case, we kept it under control and it never spread into the general community. Then people could go on about their business. But to get there we have to get back to such a low number of cases that that strategy would be effective.”
He also downplayed the hopes placed on antibody testing. “There’s been some misplaced hope on the antibody testing and what it’s going to be useful for,” Bickel said. At one point when much larger proportions of the population were feared to have been infected, it could have played a broader role. But infection rates are much lower. So it’s useful for health care workers. But for the general population, he said, “it’s mainly going to be useful for surveillance, to give us an idea, how much did it spread in the community. It’s probably going to be a pretty tiny number.”
Holland today started the weekly town hall on a brighter note, unveiling the city’s “Rise-Up Palm Coast” initiative, “a citywide effort to connect our community in never-before seen ways through these unprecedented times,” as Holland described it. “We’re partnering with organizations and representatives throughout Palm Coast to deliver dynamic, engaging content to help you live a healthy, fulfilling life in even the most challenging of times. You’ll be able to learn about cooking healthy meals, exercising at home, discover family activities, enjoy the arts, performances, and so much more. We are building an ecosystem of engagement for you, our residents, and you’ll be able to view it all on the Palm Coast and Recreations Facebook page, from the comfort and safety of your own home.”
A video then featured the city manager, city directors, the fire chief, Snyder, Superintendent JiM tager, Sheriff Rick Staly, de Aquino (who thanked the community for its recent drive-by parade in support of health workers at the hospital) and others all urging Palm Coast to “rise up” toward better days.
The full town hall is below.