But for the death toll, which keeps rising, Flagler County’s pandemic situation is improving on every front–falling case loads in the community and in the hospital, increasing vaccine deliveries, rising proportion of the county’s elderly already inoculated, and nothing but more voluminous vaccine deliveries ahead. As grim as the winter was expected to be, the situation is improving somewhat faster than expected, though health officials caution that all precautions must be maintained.
With new coronavirus infection totals falling in four of the past five weeks and covid hospitalization levels, while still high, also falling to levels last seen during the summer peak, local officials are confident Flagler County is clear of the holiday surge and are gaining confidence in other indicators as well, with one exception.
Covid-related deaths have reached 85 in Flagler County, an increase from 70 at the beginning of February alone, making this month the deadliest of the pandemic yet–with two weeks to go. On an annualized basis, Covid has been the fifth-leading cause of death in Flagler. Just under 29,000 people have died of covid-19 related causes in Florida, and 486,000 have died of the disease in the United States so far–a fifth of the world’s total.
There are also some concerns about more infectious variants of the coronavirus making their way into the region. So far, however, health officials have traced just two such cases in Flagler County, and four in Volusia, all related to the British variant. There’s been none detected in St. Johns or Putnam counties. While the British variant is more infectious, the Centers for Disease Control so far says it is not more virulent, though that’s small comfort: if a strain is more transmissible, it also means more people will get infected more rapidly–and therefore, more people will be hospitalized, and more will die. So controlling the spread remains essential.
But for the first time since the beginning of the vaccine roll-out, the Flagler County Health Department will take delivery of 1,300 first-shot doses this week, up from 800 a week for the past several weeks, a 60 percent increase that, together with deliveries of doses to private-sector providers such as Publix and the hospital, means that some 2,500 people will get their first shot this week alone.
“2,500 vaccines is a good amount of vaccines to get in people’s arms, so we’re happy about that,” Jonathan Lord, the county’s emergency management chief, said this afternoon. Even before this week’s allotment, Flagler ranked 12th out of 67 counties in proportion of people inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine. As of Monday, 16,870 people in the county had received either their first shot or both, or 15 percent of the population. Almost 5,000 of those, or more than 4 percent had received both shots. Statewide, the proportion is 10.6 percent for first or both shots, making Flagler’s rate considerably more robust than the state’s.
At least 1,000 people a day were inoculated on three of the past 14 days, with an average of 609 first or second shots provided each day in the past 14 days.
More than 14,000 of those receiving their first or second shot (83 percent of the total) are 65 and over. Some 31.2 percent of the county’s population of 115,000 is 65 and over (as of the Census’ 2019 count), for an actual total of 35,900. So 39 percent that population has been inoculated with either a first or both shots, in line with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s order that inoculations for now be limited to front-line health care providers and people 65 and over.
Another high point in Flagler’s battle against covid: every resident of a licensed nursing home or assisted living facility in the county has received at least a first shot, and will be receiving the second within four or five weeks of the first. CVS, Walgreens and CDR Medical have been inoculating residents in those facilities. The health department is assuming responsibility for vaccinating residents in the smaller group homes and assisted living facilities. “I can safely say that the clear majority of individuals in an adult home and long-term care setting have received their first doses,” Bob Snyder, who heads Flagler County’s health department–a state agency–said this morning.
“Things are going well, we’ve increased staff, we’ve had increases in volunteers as well,” Snyder said. The local health department’s staffing has doubled over the course of the pandemic, from its normal 56 employees to 110 today. Vaccinations will be taking place at the county fairgrounds off County Road 13 on Wednesday and Thursday. Covid-19 testing continues at midday at the county airport on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Much of the same teams of staffers are conducting testing and vaccination, with support from Flagler Volunteer Services.
Many churches in town, including Santa Maria del Mar in Flagler Beach, First United Methodist Church in Bunnell, Parkview Baptist Church, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Palm Coast, as well as the Palm Coast Community Center, have offered providing their spaces for vaccinations as the weather warms or becomes inclement. “We’re putting together the plans for that and it’s going well,” Snyder said, in anticipation of doses increasing and the governor’s limitation on those 65 and over being lifted. Once that happens, the county expects another surge in demand.
“We’re not far off from the governor expanding the criteria, probably,” Lord said, because some counties are starting to have a hard time filling their appointment slots with people 65 and over. Flagler is not yet among those counties.
At the end of January, when the county’s emergency management division was still tabulating a waiting list of people 65 and over seeking a vaccine, the list had grown to 12,000 names. That list was turned over to the state’s MyVaccine pre-registration system. Lord no longer has a tally of the number of people on the list but he estimates it was pared down by 1,000 to 2,000 names.
With over 5,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Flagler, and almost 17,000 vaccinated with one or two shots, is herd or community immunity at least in sight? “It’s too early to say if we’re seeing ramifications from the vaccine yet,” Snyder said, “but obviously soon. I’m thinking a nice increase of individuals as a group are vaccinated, protected, immune, in addition to individuals who have gotten the virus and whose antibodies and immune systems have been awakened for that reason, the combination of both collectively having an impact in reducing the positivity rate in cases. But certainly soon we should see the impact of that.”
In recognition of falling case loads, AdventHealth today updated the visitor policy at its facilities in the Central Florida Division, including AdventHealth Palm Coast. The hospital will now allow two visitors per day per patient. Visitors may leave and return on the same day but visitors must be the same two people per day. The updates are in accordance with the latest CDC guidelines.
Patients who are not suspected or confirmed to have Covid are allowed the two visitors per day. Pediatric patients are allowed two visitors per day, regardless of Covid status. End-of-life patients, regardless of Covid status, may have two visitors at a time, with a maximum of six visitors per day. Non-Covid patients may receive a clerical visit in addition to two visitors per day.
AdventHealth hospitals are no longer at red status, and are back to green, which means business as usual, without restrictions on procedures.
But all hospital employees and visitors must continue to wear a surgical/loop mask when in an AdventHealth facility and are temperature checked when they enter our buildings. Visitors must also comply with social distancing, hand hygiene and any other protective requirements throughout the duration of the visit. Video visits and expanded telehealth services continue to be available, as they have been during the pandemic, to lessen the burden on facilities and provide additional comfort and convenience for patients.