Last Updated: Saturday, 7:35 p.m.
Flagler County’s covid-19 numbers have been trending downward for the last three weeks. But new infections have emerged in schools as faculty and staff returned to campuses earlier this month and classes resumed this week, and, after a long period of calm, in more than half a dozen local assisted living facilities.
Friday and Saturday alone, notices went out regarding five infections at three schools.
“One student tested positive at Old Kings, I believe it was either a first or second grader, the school will be following up on that with parents,” Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder said this afternoon. (He later clarified it was a first grader, and on Saturday evening corrected that to a fifth grader). Letters went out to parents Friday. “Of course we’re doing our case investigation as we speak. A Bunnell staff member tested positive.” The staffer is a second-grade teacher. “We did have about two or three high school kids who because they were close contacts with others, they are being tested and followed up on, but we don’t have the results of those tests.”
On Saturday, Old Kings Elementary notified parents of another staff member at the school testing positive.
One of the three high school students tested had not been feeling well, “so we decided to get that person tested,” Snyder said. “The other two we found out they were close contacts with someone who was either a confirmed case or a probable case,” but the close contact had not taken place at school. “Just to play it safe our team decided to test them tested. We’ll get results back within two to three days.”
In fact, by Friday evening, two students at FPC were confirmed to have tested positive. FPC Principal issued a letter to parents this evening , saying the school had been informed of the cases just after 6 p.m.
Once a case is confirmed, case investigators begin interviewing the person’s close contacts and expand in a concentric circle of contacts in an attempt to trace the infection source and determine whether it was the result of contact with someone who’s traveled, been in a particular hot zone recently, or if it’s a case of community transmission, as most cases have been through the July and August surge. The new cases at FPC mean that the student’s own circles of friends and faculty will be investigated.
“I’m certain our case investigators are speaking with either mom and dad with respect to the younger students,” Snyder said. “We also include in our interviews teachers and staff members at the schools to help determine that students activities and where the student was throughout the week at school. That’s all part of the interview process.”
Soon the health department and the district will set up a testing site at a school two days a week, but the health department is not yet disclosing what school that will be.
School and health officials were expecting that some cases would result from the resumption of school, as they have locally and across Florida campuses, both in K-12 and in colleges and universities, as hundreds of thousands of students have been returning to school since the middle of the month. Other than the quarantining at home of the individual affected, the schools have carried on their normal operations.
The Flagler school district is offering classes in person, through iFlagler, its virtual school (where students learn at their own pace, without a live teacher, but they can contact the teacher when necessary), and through the “remote-live” option: students are at home, but attending their regular classes with their regular teacher through a live video stream.
When school resumed Monday, attendance was down significantly from last year, with 5,965 attending in person, 2,384 through the remote-live option, and 1,645 through iFlagler, for a total of a few students shy of 10,000. Last year the district was around 13,000 students.
Officials were projecting a rise in attendance as days progressed. Through Thursday, in-person attendance had risen by over 200 students, to 6,185, remote-live instruction had zoomed up 22 percent (or by 532 students), to 2,916 students, but iFlagler attendance had fallen by 177 students, or 11 percent, to 1,468. Total attendance was 10,569.
David Bossardet, the school district’s safety specialist (he was formerly known as the district’s risk manager) spoke this morning on WNZF about the coming “Potato Bowl” between the Matanzas and Flagler Palm Coast High School football teams on Sept. 18. Organized fall sports in the district are set to resume with conditioning on Sept. 5. The bowl will take place, as will other competitive games with teams drawn from nearby counties. But the district is still trying to figure out whether to have fans in the stands, and how. “We are going to offer a streamed version, but as far as fans in the stands, I don;t have a definitive answer,” Bossardet said. “I’ll lean a lot on Mr. Snyder and get his recommendations on what we can do to make things safer. But there will be a lot less fans in the stands.”
Snyder said the two conditions that must be met are social distancing in the stands and mandatory masks throughout the game. “We’re not willing to jeopardize the safety of not only our students but Flagler County for that experience,” Bossardet said.
Case numbers have been falling steadily in Florida and in Flagler County–as has testing. After peaking at 164 new cases the week of July 25 in Flagler, the weekly case load has decreased for five weeks in a row, but so have the number of weekly tests. So far this week, Flagler has added 50 new cases, out of 525 total tests, according to the Florida Department of Health–still more cases than any but one week through the middle of June. Florida has added 72,775 cases in the last 14 days, an average of 3,770 per day, more than three times the daily average of the April surge but significantly less than the July peak, when daily case loads were three times as high.
Snyder has been perplexed by the Centers for Disease Control’s new and confusing guidelines on testing: the CDC has been directing health departments and others to test less. “A lot of public health officials have been surprised by the CDC change in saying that asymptomatic individuals don’t need to get tested, they just need to follow the protocol,” Snyder said. “If you are in close contact [with a positive case] you need to stay home for 14 days and only get tested if you’re symptomatic. Considering that 40 to 50 percent of cases are asymptomatic, it doesn’t quite make sense to us.” Snyder himself is very skeptical of that approach. “They’re kind of betting on the farm that so and so who is a close contact will indeed stay home for 14 days as opposed to get tested to confirm that they were positive so we could do contact tracing on you.”
A decrease in testing alone is not the reason for the fewer cases: fewer people are developing symptoms, fewer people are ending up in the hospital. In Flagler, bed capacity at AdventHealth Palm Coast today was at 25 percent, intensive care bed capacity at 39 percent. Ten people were hospitalized today with a primary diagnosis of covid-19 at AdventHealth, down by more than half from the July peak.
Still, after a long period of evading positive cases in assisted living facilities, Flagler is now experiencing a mini-surge there, with seven facilities currently affected.
Tuscan Gardens of Palm Coast has four residents and three staffers infected in the facility’s memory-care unit, where residents with dementia are cared for. “But we are definitely on top of it, we’ve been in contact with them on a daily basis,” Snyder said.
Grand Oaks Health and Rehabilitation has four positive staffers. Gentle Care Assisted Living had two residents transferred out because of covid-19 and currently has one resident infected, and one staffer, according to the health department’s current (non-cumulative) data. Flagler Health and Rehabilitation has one staffer who is positive. Happy Days Assisted Living and Magnolia Manor of Palm Coast have two infected staffers each. Magnolia Manor also had one resident transferred out. And the Windsor of Palm Coast has one infected staffer.
Among those transferred out, Snyder said “one or two did end up in the hospital but no, we haven’t had to send them elsewhere to a different facility or anything like that.”
One former resident at Flagler Health and Rehabilitation is among the county’s 15 deaths attributed to covid-19.
Flagler County continues to be better off than most Florida counties, though that’s relative: compared to most counties in the northeast and Midwest, it’s still not doing as well, though it’s doing quite a bit better than it did a few weeks ago.
“I just want the community tom know that I believe the reason why we are in better shape here in Flagler County than most other counties,” Snyder said, “is because as a community, as a big, big village, we have all embraced the concept of social distancing more, and facial coverings. That is the number one and two public health measures that we can take to get back to normal. So thank you Flagler County, because the data indicates that we’re doing it, and we are headed in the right direction, because of your efforts.”