Whether pandemics, hurricanes or anti-vaxxers are bearing down on his health department, Bob Snyder is naturally predisposed to optimism. Monday evening, the head of the Flagler Health Department was positively buoyant as he gave the County Commission the sort of covid update that hadn’t been heard there in months–itself a sign that the pandemic locally has receded from the summer’s calamitous effects on Flagler and Florida.
One of the most positive indicators: just four patients were at AdventHealth Palm Coast on a primary diagnosis of Covid on Monday, compared to around 100 at the height of the last wave in summer.
“With the vaccine now being available for children over the age of five, we’re probably at a point soon where we’ll be as close to local herd immunity as we can get,” Snyder said.
Covid isn’t gone. It may never end. Snyder says it’ll become more endemic than pandemic. But for now, it’s more nuisance than menace in Flagler. Weekly case loads fell in 10 of the last 11 weeks and for the past four weeks have been averaging around 50 per week–not as low as the spring of 2020, but still the lowest numbers by far since the arrival of the Delta variant, the supersize equivalent of the coronavirus.
At one point in the early weeks of the new school year, the schools accounted for half the new cases in the community. School cases are now down to a trace, with some days–like the three-day stretch between Nov. 6 and 8–producing zero cases either among students or faculty and staff. Between Nov. 15 and 15, there was just one positive case. In all, 1,133 students and 127 staffers have tested positive in schools. More tellingly: barely 10 cases have been recorded in all of November district-wide.
“Unfortunately over the last two to three weeks we’ve seen an increase in cases throughout the United States,” Snyder said. The national seven-day average bottomed out between late October and early November at just over 70,000 new cases per day. It is now at 85,000 per day and rising, with Covid’s stalking following the same patterns as in previous waves: when people are pushed indoors in large numbers by the weather, cases rise. That in part drove Florida’s summer surge, aggravated though it was not only by a dearth of preventive measures but by the state’s active campaigns against safety measures. That’s what’s driving the surge in the northern and mountain part of the country at the moment, with the Midwest and the Rockies states hit hardest, and Michigan leading the way in case incidence. In summer, it was the reverse: the South was leading the way, with Florida as the epicenter.
But hospital admissions are less than a third what they were at the height of the pandemic nationally, in the depth of the winter at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, a reflection of the rollout of vaccines and covid-fighting therapies since. (Pfizer and Merck now have medication available that, when administered orally within three days of developing Covid symptoms, reduce hospitalizations and death by 89 percent, according to Snyder. Those percentages are notoriously variable, but remain significantly higher than the alternative.) The unvaccinated are six times as likely as the non-vaccinated to contract Covid. The unvaccinated are 12 times as likely as the unvaccinated to die, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
In Flagler, 73,291 people have had at least one vaccine shot, representing 63 percent of the total population, or 65 percent of the population over age 5. Vaccination numbers spiked in July and early August but have since fallen, until they started rising again somewhat in October. The reason: booster shots. Last week 425 vaccine doses were administered in the county, double the number from the week before, “which we are so happy to see,” Snyder said.
All 17 pharmacies in Flagler County have vaccines, while the Health Department continues to administer vaccines by appointment on certain days. “If you’d like to get this taken care of, you get to stay in your car at the airport,” Snyders aid. “Easy peasy. roll down the window. Show us your arm. We’re available there to get tested as well the rapid test, but we gladly would give you a jab, and that number to call is 386-437-7350 to make an appointment.”
“You could have had immediate appointments this morning for a booster shot and or a child shot this morning,” Jonathan Lord, head of Flagler County Emergency Management, said. “So that’s very, very good that the federal government has gotten the vaccine out to the state and the states have gotten it out to the private sector as well as the public sector and anybody looking for a vaccine can pretty much get one if they so desire with very little notice and make an appointment online or just show up at one of our pharmacies.”
Flagler since the beginning of the pandemic has had 14,457 confirmed cases of covid–likely an undercount–with 630 hospitalizations. Among children in grades K-12, there’s been 1,446 cases, and an additional 309 among children up to age 4.
Nationally, 759,000 people have died from the disease, far exceeding the total of the Civil War. In Florida, nearly 61,000 have died, now well exceeding New York State’s tally and ranking third behind California and Texas. In Flagler, 276 people have died from the disease, making it one of the leading causes of death in the county over the past two years.
“Keep in mind that outdoor events, even though the weather is getting cooler, outdoor events and activity is 20 to 100 times safer than indoor activities to keep that transmission continuing to be low,” he said, before providing a forecast: “What can we expect going forward? Well, experts have been saying for a long time that there’s probably no chance that Covid is going to disappear. We are going to be going from a pandemic to an endemic similar to how we deal with other chronic conditions, similar to how we view the flu every year, for those who know to get the flu shot and are open to that. The bottom line: as long as no additional mutation or variant emerges, and we don’t have any indication that one is happening at all right now, especially in Florida and here locally, that we’ve got a pretty good idea of kind of knowing where we’re headed. The landscape is not going to change too dramatically from this time forward.”
But that depends on people getting their boosters, and there are still 60 million people who have not been vaccinated. Immunity wanes over time regardless. Mask-wearing is not as frequent as before.
“So you’d better communicate what you know and you’d better communicate it often,” Snyder summed up. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we had such good luck and good outcomes during the first 15 months of Covid. I really think as a community we talk to each other a lot, and all the cities and the county, you and the City of Palm Coast and everyone welcomed our feedback, myself, Jonathan and feedback from Dr. Bickel,” the medical director at the Health Department, “to kind of share the data talk to you about what the trends are, talk to you about what our concerns are and what what the science is saying. So that’s definitely important. The gap between the ideal theoretical strategy and what you actually can execute could be huge. But it has more to do with your country’s culture and cohesiveness maybe than anything else. Unfortunately, our country’s divided on many issues right now and the pandemic hit right in the middle of that. So there’s a lot to be said about cohesiveness and not being divided when it comes to major issues that are life threatening potentially.”