Last Updated: 5:50 p.m.
5:50 p.m. update: When this article originally published early this morning, the total number of Flagler deaths was listed as 127, an increase of 13 in the last two weeks. It was based on Health Department Chief Bob Snyder’s figures as of Sunday. When Snyder gave the County Commission an update at 5:30 p.m. Monday, his presentation cited a total of 130, and he said an additional five had been tallied just this afternoon, for a total of 135. The article’s figures have been adjusted accordingly.]
At least 21 Flagler County residents have died of Covid-19 just in the last two weeks–a rate of three per day–raising the county’s total to 135, Bob Snyder, who heads the county’s health department–a state agency–said. It is the highest death tally for any two-week period since the pandemic began in early 2020.
In Florida, at least 1,687 residents have died of the disease just in the last two weeks. The figures are as of last Friday. They point to far more dire consequences of the pandemic’s fourth wave in Flagler and Florida than state officials have acknowledged. In fact, the state is no longer disclosing death counts for counties as it did in the first three waves of the pandemic. It is masking death counts for the state as a whole, just as it has been fudging vaccination figures to make them seem higher than they are, just as it has eliminated daily reports of case counts, whether for the state or the counties, in an apparent effort to downplay the intensity of the crisis.
Flagler County last week recorded 694 confirmed covid infections (as of Friday), yet another record, for a total of 2,004 confirmed infections in the last three weeks–almost 2 percent of the county’s population. Put an other way: there were more confirmed infections in the last three weeks in Flagler than all infections combined from January through October last year. But as with death figures, the profile of local infections is no longer available, so it’s impossible for residents to, for example, gauge the age of those infected or examine to what extent the pandemic is affecting children. Last week Dr. Michael Keating, Chief Medical Officer for AventHealth for children, said 12 children were hospitalized in the central division, an all-time high.
Admissions on a covid diagnosis at AdventHealth Palm Coast continue to hover between 80 and 90, with nearly 1,600 admissions in the AdventHealth’s network of 16 hospitals in the Central Florida division alone. “Our Central Florida Division facilities are currently operating at Black Status and seeing unprecedented volumes in our Emergency Departments, ICUs and PCUs. The teams in these areas are tired, overwhelmed and stretched thin,” an internal message to physicians stated Friday. Among the guidance given physicians: “Discuss end of life options/goals of care with patients upon admission,” and “Discharge patients as soon as possible to create capacity for waiting emergency department patients.”
Snyder disclosed the number of deaths for the county after a public record request. But even Flagler’s figure is limited to the sum total of fatalities. The age, race, sex and date of death of the individuals is not being disclosed–nor is the data available to the local health department the way it used, Snyder said. “I want to know this information myself,” he said. “So I’ve instructed my team to go hunt it down. They hunted it down as far as they could, and up to a point to give us this total number. So now what we’ve done is we’ve asked Tallahassee to give us the detailed information per your public record request. I’d like to know it myself.”
With the exception of the health department, Flagler County governments until late last month month went beyond the state’s fog on covid figures with what appeared to be more a blackout on local infections or even vaccination information. Only in the last two weeks elected officials began speaking individually about the importance of safety measures and of taking the vaccine. It was only on Saturday morning that Palm Coast posted on its Facebook page a Health Department advisory to “Let’s be united to keep Flagler healthy” and mask up. The county’s Emergency Management division and county government resumed those Facebook posts starting on July 29 and July 30. But both governments continue to refrain from issuing broader advisories through press releases, as they had in previous waves of the pandemic.
And the Flagler County school district has maintained almost complete silence on masking or vaccination advisories, whether on its Facebook page, its website or in press releases. An exception on Friday was Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt’s letter to parents and the community. The superintendent referred to “conflicting guidance from federal, state, and local health authorities”–the “conflict” has enabled many a local government to pick the message of their choice–, pointed to the governor‘s executive order barring mask mandates and pointed to the district’s Back to School plan before making a personal statement: “Before I leave my house each morning, I re-evaluate my health status. I continue to regularly wash my hands throughout the day, and when I am unable to maintain the CDC’s recommended COVID-19 protocols, I prefer to use a face covering and encourage others to do the same. Often, it’s as simple as taking a few steps back from a person. On a personal level, I’ve been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and I continue to do my part to make sure I’m careful around others and respect their personal decisions.”
There’s been no conflicting information from the Centers for Disease Control, the federal government or even the local health department. Snyder, for his part, said masking in school was “absolutely” necessary during the current surge. The only conflict is between the the federal, scientific and even local health department’s consensus on one side, and the DeSantis administration on the other. The DeSantis executive order, however, relies on demonstratbly false claims.)
Nevertheless, Flagler Palm Coast High School today is holding a series of events to mark “Bulldog Success Day” (“9th grade students will not need their backpack or laptop for the day”), including an afternoon pep rally in the school’s gym. Pep rallies encourage loud expression, singing and shouting: exactly the sort of activities, in a crowded, enclosed environment that spread covid. (See evidence here, here, here, here and here.) [1:35 p.m. Update: The school announced in early afternoon that it was converting the pep rally to a virtual event.]
In the first week of school, which started on Aug. 10 in Flagler, 55 students and 19 staffers tested positive for the virus, according to the district’s daily tally, including 14 students and two employees on Friday.
The state health department’s weekly covid report is a far cry from the daily reports that used to post until late spring. The report posted Friday reveals a cumulative total of deaths attributed to covid in Florida of 40,766 since the beginning of the pandemic. The previous week’s report’s total was 39,695, a difference of 1,071. Yet the very same report posted Friday masks that figure by stating that deaths in the “previous week” totaled only 286. The difference is not explained. A footnote states that death counts “include individuals who meet a standardized national surveillance case definition.” But the note doesn’t clarify whether it applies to the lower or the higher figure. In the previous week, the report indicated 616 deaths, and 409 deaths the week before that.
Further complicating the matter, the state health department a week ago changed the way it was reporting figures altogether, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “The result: Florida no longer provides a real-time picture of how COVID is impacting the state,” the newspaper reported Saturday. “The most dramatic example is that Florida’s daily death count had been trending upward since the end of June, but with the recent adjustments made by the state Department of Health, the number of deaths due to COVID appeared to decline dramatically over the past week. At least on paper.” The paper added: “Florida changed its COVID reporting method Tuesday and now reports when cases or deaths actually occurred rather than when they were communicated to the state – allowing health officials to assign cases or deaths to days in the past rather than the present.”
The weekly report also fudges vaccination numbers. Before the state eliminated more detailed county-by-county reports, Flagler’s numbers differentiated between first and second shots, and included a detailed breakdown in ages of those vaccinated. It issued the last such report on June 3–two weeks before the fourth wave began. At the time, the report showed that 57,928 people had received at least one shot in the county (50 percent), but only 49,323, or 43 percent of the population, had completed their series.
Friday’s state report shows Flagler as having 66,834 of its 116,671 residents vaccinated (57 percent). But the figure doesn’t differentiate between first and second doses, even though a surge of recent vaccinations is the result of individuals only recently electing to be vaccinated. So state also states that 64 percent of the county’s eligible population (12 and older) is vaccinated. But the figure is doubly deceptive: first, it overstates the number of people who have completed their cycle. Second, it downplays the fact that herd immunity is measured on a total-population basis, not vaccine-eligibility basis, because even younger children are transmitters of the coronavirus’s delta variant.
When only fully vaccinated figures are examined, Flagler County is only at 50 percent of its total population, and 56 percent of those ages 12 and up. After falling to as few as 50 shots per day in the county in late June and early July, the number of vaccinations rose for four weeks in a row, to nearly 1,400 in the week ending Aug. 6, only to decline again last week, to 1,236.
The Flagler Health Department is running a seven-days-a-week testing and vaccination operation–five days at 120 Airport Road, on the second floor, from 3 to 6 p.m., and seven days at the health department’s facility at 301 Dr. Carter Boulevard in Bunnell, where weekday hours are also 3 to 6 p.m. and weekend hours are from 9 to 11 a.m. But Snyder said testing is ahead of vaccines by a four-to-one ratio–out of about 100 people who show up at either location each day, “it’s like 20 to 25 that want to get vaccinated and then the rest, 75 to 80 want to get tested.” Snyder will be making the rounds of local governments this week–at the County Commission this evening, the Palm Coast City Council on Tuesday and the Flagler Beach City Commission on Thursday, reporting on the latest surge. The school board is in workshop on Tuesday. Snyder is not presenting there.