The state Health Department has imposed a striking gag order on the Flagler County health department, forbidding it from releasing covid-19 numbers affecting schools either to the public or to the press. The order falls as a drizzle of covid cases continues to affect Flagler schools, with a few classrooms, individual faculty and students required to quarantine.
The Flagler department has been forthcoming with the information, discussing it in public meetings, in media appearances, in press interviews and whenever requested, deeming the information necessary as part of the department’s strategy in containing the coronavirus. But the state, acting on orders from Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration, which has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic and sidelined the health department’s role, ordered health departments across the state not to give guidance to school districts on re-openings, and now has restricted the role of departments further in the dissemination of information. The Orange County Health Department fell under the same gag order Thursday, after that department’s chief got the same phone call from the state as did Bob Snyder, Flagler’s chief.
Snyder’s management of the pandemic Flagler has maintained the lowest per-capita number of covid cases out of any of Florida’s 67 counties. (The number is good within Florida, but Flagler’s numbers remain poor relative to much of the rest of the country; there were 155 cases in the county in the last 14 days.) Snyder was clearly uncomfortable this morning as he explained the reversal in an interview. “I was in that mode, transparency, and wanting to be open about sharing basic information,” Snyder said, “and I take responsibility for this, I just didn’t think it was an issue. I felt it was information the public had the right to know, but the department of health has gotten back to us and indicated that no, that is something I cannot share.”
The state health department’s claim that the information about school cases is confidential is highly dubious and does not appear to be backed up by an exemption in the state’s public record law, since the information in question is purely statistical, not identifying, and not much different than the pediatric report the state health department is routinely issuing about cases affecting children. That report is broken down by county and by age groups, but it does not go further into a school-by-school breakdown.
Snyder earlier this week said he would be preparing a daily report that would sum up each day’s covid numbers in schools, in conjunction with the Flagler County school district. He then said the report would be produced every Friday, to minimize the mixed messages that daily numbers can send out when certain cases haven’t been confirmed. As late as Thursday he was gathering the numbers and preparing to release the numbers. He was doing so just as his colleague in Orange County, Dr. Raul Pino, who heads that county’s health department, had been doing. Then Pino got a call from the state office Thursday afternoon. The call to Snyder followed shortly after that.
“This was obviously a big surprise to us as well,” Gretchen Smith, the public information officer at the Flagler health department, said this morning.
“Similar to Dr. Pino we felt it was important for the community to have information like this, about confirmed cases and just what the status is in our school system,” Snyder said. “We’re not having any names, addresses or phone numbers or conditions of the patients and people impacted, so I felt that was playing it safe and very appropriate. But obviously I need to seek clarification from the department of health because they called Dr. Pino and they called me last night saying we need to keep this information confidential. And yeah that’s it. The school district can certainly relay information.”
The school district relies on Snyder’s information. It had initially decided not to disclose case numbers or locations except to those affected, though it released numbers to the press whenever asked for them. The district issues official letters either to staff or to parents, depending on who’s infected, informing them of any one or more case. But only those directly impacted by the case–say, a particular department, a classroom, sometimes an entire school–receive the letter. The letters have swiftly appeared on social media and been acquired by news organizations, including FlaglerLive, through public record requests. But as yet there’s been no systematic way of keeping track of outbreaks on a consistent basis. The health department gag order leaves it up to school districts to release what they wish.
Volusia County schools earlier this week had said they would not release any covid information to the public or the press. After a backlash, the district reversed course and publish numbers twice a week.
Snyder said the plan to issue a weekly report in Flagler through the district is still a go. But that’s assuming the state Department of Education doesn’t issue a gag order to school district in turn–as appears possible, given the state Health Department’s directive.
“In terms of what Jason will be sharing,” he said of Jason Wheeler, the district’s chief spokesman, Snyder said he wasn’t yet completely certain about the scope, but said it would likely include the “number of positive students, positive staff, schools impacted, numbers of people quarantined–those are just examples of what I believe Jason will be putting together for public consumption.”
Wheeler, who was struggling to begin a few days off over the Labor Day holiday today, said this morning that he was working on the information system but was still devising its scope with Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney. Wheeler said he favored the release of the information. “I would like to just because it’s what we’ve said, and we’ve released numbers in the past,” he said.
Still, even with the district’s pending weekly report–which would be released every Friday at 3 p.m.–Snyder had been confirming school cases on a daily basis, when asked about them specifically. He said he is now barred from doing so.
A little after 3 p.m. today. Wheeler issued a brief report summarizing the case load in schools since Aug. 24: three staff members and 11 students at Old Kings Elementary, Buddy Taylor Middle, and the two high schools, though the list appears to be missing some cases, such as Bunnell Elementary, where a class is quarantined. Just as he released the report, FPC issued yet another letter on a student testing positive. Now, that could not be verified with the health department.
The district and the health department have been working very closely, both in preparation for the reopening of campuses to students on Aug. 24 and on tracing outbreaks since, which have hit various campuses steadily since reopening. Today alone Flagler Palm Coast High School was the subject of numerous investigations and likely new positive cases, with at least one student confirmed positive (with a letter issued) on Sept. 3 and several others quarantined, including a dean, three teachers and a student who’d worked at the front desk.
Once the health department is alerted to a case, its contact tracers get to work, tracing the individual’s circle of contacts to the extent that those within the circle are deemed to have been at risk of infection. Those most at risk are required to quarantine and possibly tested, though the Centers for Disease Control, in another perplexing order the health department has been required to follow, now says asymptomatic people should not be tested. That’s created a new quandary for local health officials, though individual families and employees who want to get tested are free to do so. (The health department opened a testing site just for students and school employees at Buddy Taylor Middle School, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.)
Despite the retrenchment on testing, the county saw a spike of 25 confirmed cases on Thursday. Snyder said that was driven largely by new cases in schools, at Grand Oaks rehabilitation (the nursing home on Palm Coast Parkway) and at Tuscan Gardens, another assisted living facility in Palm Coast. After weathering much of the pandemic with very few cases, local nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been experiencing a mini-surge in cases in the past two weeks–just as DeSantis reopened nursing homes to visitors. The health department is listing four current staff members having tested positive at Grand Oaks, and nine residents at Tuscan Gardens. Cases have been confirmed at both the county’s high schools and in at least three of its elementary schools.
“I cannot say enough about Bob Snyder and his contact-tracing team,” Wheeler said today, describing the health department’s “spectacular job” in the schools. Snyder, for his part, noted the irony of having the district rely on (and release) the very same information the health department had been releasing publicly previously. “On a daily basis we’re exchanging information with the school district if we have to, so the numbers that Jason will share will be numbers that are confirmed, verified by us,” Snyder said, “because that’s where the information comes from. But we just can’t at this point in time communicate it ourselves.”