Five of the last six Flagler County residents who died from Covid-19 were ages 33, 40, 44, 49 and 50: a significantly younger age group than the majority of those who died in earlier waves of the pandemic, according to the Flagler Health Department, and an indication that the disease remains lethal to the unvaccinated, especially those with “co-morbidities,” such as obesity.
But the Flagler County Health Department is making it clear to local city and county governments: the department is no longer in the business of telling them whether to hold events or not. That goes for the Christmas parade in Flagler Beach. That was true of the Creekside Festival last weekend. That goes for events at the Flagler Auditorium and anywhere else.
The apparent shift is more of a ratification of existing practice in most cases, anyway. It also appears to be a sharper reflection of the new regime at the state Health Department, whose new Surgeon General, Joseph Ladapo, has made clear that the Health Department is not only not an arbiter of state and local practices regarding covid, but that it is an active cheerleader in the business-as-usual approach, and an enthusiastic supporter of prohibitions on mask mandates, on enforced vaccination or vaccine passports of any kind, on enforced limits on gatherings, and so on. Ladapo is reflecting the approach of the DeSantis administration. The Health Department is a branch of the executive.
The local health department won’t go so far as cheering for that approach. It’s been an advocate of prudence, masking, adherence to Centers for Disease Control guidance–which has been more rigorous than state guidance. In the spring of 2020, Bob Snyder, the department’s chief, played a front-line role in the decision to close the beaches in Flagler Beach and the county. He continued to play a leading role that led the three cities–Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach–to enact mask mandates, albeit mandates defanged by the sheriff’s and municipal law enforcement’s position that they were not enforceable. But the mandate in schools last year was strict and enforced. On the radio and elsewhere, Snyder, backed by Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler Health Department, advocated universal masking and universal vaccination.
Still: public officials have maintained the pretense, at least in public, to always be working with the health department in deciding whether to hold events, larger events especially.
Last week Flagler Beach officials contacted Snyder to discuss the city’s annual Christmas parade and perhaps get an all-clear from Snyder. Snyder then joined a call with all the local city managers and the county administrator on Friday, to discuss event management in the context of the covid pandemic. Snyder let them know: “We don’t have the authority to say yea or nay regarding things like this, but we certainly want to educate, inform, and share the data about what covid is doing in our community at the moment and what our continued challenges are.” In other words, the department will share information. It will not make judgments.
“They apparently liked what they heard. So they said, ‘Would you mind putting your thoughts in writing.’ so I did,” Snyder said.
On Tuesday, he emailed the three city managers and the county administrator, along with Flagler Beach’s police chief and fire chief, who have handled covid-safety matters in that city. “Throughout the pandemic, the local Department of Health has no authority to decide whether or not a governmental, civic or privately sponsored indoor or outdoor event should be held,” Snyder wrote. “We appreciate any person or group that has sought our insight and guidance over the last 19 months. We have educated, informed, shared the science and data to numerous folks and entities including all the Cities, County, Rotary Clubs, Flagler Broadcasting, School District and numerous organizations and individuals. The decision to hold events such as the Creekside Festival, Freedom Fest, any outdoor or indoor event rests with the organizing party, not the Health Department. To assess risk, all we attempt to do is share data and observations about the extent of COVID 19 transmission in our community to keep our residents safe and healthy.”
Snyder did not stop short of providing advice: “A critical factor will be the level of spread during the time of the event.” He then outlined conditions in the county as of Oct. 7. By then the number of weekly cases in the county, at 102, was not insignificant (there was a point in the pandemic when that number would have been considered very alarming) but it compares to 936 cases in a single week at the height of the last surge. Hospitalizations are down sharply, to around a dozen (from nearly 100 at the height of the surge), and 72,104 county residents, out of 116,000, have received at least one dose of vaccine. The school district, which had at one point in September been the driving force of new cases, has seen the same sharp drop in cases.
“Outdoor events and activity are much safer and not as risky as indoor settings for transmission of the virus, especially in spaces that are poorly ventilated,” Snyder wrote. “Is the risk of outdoor activities ZERO? Well no, but the research and evidence indicates it is significantly less. Estimates range from 20 – 100 times safer.” Vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 are about to be approved, third doses have been approved for the Pfizer vaccine, antiviral medication is about to be approved, monoclonal antibody treatment is freely available.
Snyder then wrote what local officials will likely be glad to take as guidance in coming decisions about events: “Most public health and medical experts concur that we are ‘not out of the woods’ yet, but the worst (hospitalizations and deaths) is likely over due to a large percentage of persons who are immune through vaccination or infection,” he wrote. “We are most likely close to local herd immunity and that vaccination rates will probably not change all that much.” Snyder said he wrote the email in consultation with Bickel.
There are caveats. Cooler months are returning, and with them the urge to gather indoors, where spread is easier. Snyder said the estimate now is that 20 to 25 percent of the population “have solidly made up their minds to not get vaccinated or tested for various reasons; we hope this does not lead to the emergence of a new variant.” Between that and winter’s risk, public health officials are hoping they will not face yet another wave, what would be the fifth since the pandemic began in early 2020.
Snyder is expected to address the Flagler Beach City Commission this evening as the commission discusses its next steps in resuming events such as First Friday and the Christmas parade.
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