In the hierarchy of heroism we typically see soldiers, athletes, astronauts, political and social justice leaders at the top–the Alvin Yorks and Roosevelts, the Gagarins, Mother Theresas and Michael Jordans, each name its own pantheon. You have all kinds, and nothing should take away from any of them. Heroism isn’t a zero-sum game. But the headline-grabbers can sometimes overshadow the best of them, if saving lives is the ultimate heroic act.
Think of Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin. Hardly household names. But 60 years ago polio was still an annual summer killer, infecting children, paralyzing them (among them FDR) and killing thousands, until Salk and Sabin each discovered a vaccine in 1955. Polio has been all but wiped out in one of the greatest achievements of public health in history, anti-vaxxers notwithstanding. Think of Christian Bernard, who pioneered heart transplants in 1967 with a surgery that has since saved millions of lives. Or think of Norman Borlaug. He is by far the single greatest hero of the 20th century, though his name is somehow less familiar to most Americans than the ninth hitter in the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup.
Borlaug is the Iowa native and pioneer of the Green Revolution, his innovations exponentially increasing agricultural yields and wiping out hunger for billions. Schindler to the world, no other man can claim to have saved a billion lives. He can, though he was never boastful. (He died in 2009). Bill and Melinda Gates aren’t too far behind with their work to eradicate malaria (their initiatives have reduced what used to be a million deaths a year by half).
Of course there are heroes like that all over the place. One of the better side effects of the coronavirus pandemic is the recognition that the nameless in everyday professions and trades, from physicians to nurses to teachers to bus drivers to cooks to delivery people to government workers at so many levels are all heroes finally recognized, after being taken for granted for so long. They don’t grab headlines, but they save lives, and minds. Our hyper-militarized society has tended blindly to worship anything in uniform, as if they alone risk their lives, a dangerous adulation in any society that pretends to be democratic and free (and the precursor, from Rome’s republic onward, to that society’s democratic downfall). The pandemic is teaching us the wages of valor. It is teaching us to what extent heroism can be wrongly confused with celebrity or ritualized veneration of the wrong stripes.
Which brings me to Dr. Stephen Bickel and Bob Snyder. Until this year, until this week really, I doubt there were more people in Flagler County who knew these two by name than knew of Borlaug. But if there was a local Nobel prize for humanitarianism, these two would be sharing it in 2020 in Flagler County. They have done on this county’s scale what bigger-named heroes have done on large scales. They have saved countless lives, and not just with the coronavirus. Bickel is the medical director at the Flagler Health Department and a pillar behind the Free Clinic. Snyder is the department’s director. Together, along with Jonathan Lord, the emergency management chief at the county, they’ve been the architects of Flagler’s response to the pandemic.
It hasn’t been easy for them. They’re 21st century scientists in a politically medieval county, some of whose politicians think pandering to Facebook idiocy and their own egos trumps science. But to the extent that they could, Snyder and Bickel pushed through testing and masking and surveillance strategies that somehow managed to keep Flagler’s infection rate the lowest in the state. The numbers are still terrible of course: compared to countries that have successfully contained the virus, Flagler is still a disaster zone. (Its rate of cases per 100,000 in the past seven days alone is worse than that of all but 11 countries in the world, and way worse than the U.S. average). But that’s because Florida is a disaster zone, because its governor is as reckless a know-nothing in science as the president he pimps for.
That’s the surrounding catastrophe Bickel and Snyder have been up against. That’s what they’ve managed to contain. You can only do so much when your Fort Sumter is surrounded by fanatics eager to get on with their Lost Cause.
Speaking of which: On Wednesday, a bunch of fact-challenged militants–oh yes, militants: rude, confrontational, indifferent of the danger their unmasked contempt posed to others, in other words looters of public health–appeared before the county commission, spewing every social media conspiracy effluence in the book and calling for Bickel’s and Snyder’s heads.
Bickel wasn’t there, though he was almost chuckling at the absurdity of the opponents the day before when we spoke of them. He’s a man of science, an apolitical data-driven humanist to the core (think Star Trek Spock, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Fred Rogers all in one). So it’s not that he couldn’t defend himself. He didn’t need to, and not just because Snyder was there. Even Snyder–who hides a fearsome resolve behind his public cheer–didn’t bother with the militants’ bile. He wears one of those masks they despise, so it doesn’t affect him. He and Snyder had the one unassailable thing on their side, more powerful even than god: evidence, and not the alternative sort footnoted by Facebook.
To their credit, the county commissioners, four of the five anyway, sent the deniers packing and reaffirmed their support for Snyder and the public health department. They didn’t just reaffirm it. They made sure to go on record with support and a little adulation. It’s the least they could do. Dave Sullivan, the chairman of the commission, owes his narrow re-election a few weeks ago at least in part to them: their management of the pandemic made him look good, though in fairness to Sullivan, he’s also been the most Bickelsnyderish member of a commission that even now can’t bring itself to keep its masks on consistently (Sullivan excepted).
Heroism can be exaggerated, especially when it’s confused with grandstanding and publicity-seekers. But these guys and the 50-some individuals behind them, along with Lord’s crew, are the real deal, always in the background, always doing the most good for the most people. So the circus on Wednesday was the first time that Snyder’s and Bickel’s names unwittingly grabbed headlines with so much fervor. The deniers wanted them fired. Instead, they reminded us what heroes they’ve been all along, and how even the Flagler County Commission can find its inner progressive once in a while.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece airs on WNZF Friday.
CB from PC says
And kudos to all the people of Flagler who wore masks, maintained social distancing, did not attend or have large gatherings, etc etc
and practiced some age old common sense basic hygiene.
Shutting down the businesses did nothing as there were plenty of people from elsewhere vacationing here who did not give a shit.
This is a pretty small place, he is lucky to have had such a, for the most part, cooperative population, which also across the age spectrum is generally physically fit with a decent immune system.
I can’t tell you the name of the TB Rays 9th batter but I know the names of the men and women pioneers that have worked tirelessly to help humanity, our planet, and working to get us to the moon and beyond. Some people admire athletes, actors, and musicians, but I’ve always admired the brightest and sharpest minds. It’s why I was prepared for this in Jan because I read a med board that has global postings from doctors, nurses, and scientists. I knew it was bad. I knew it was airborne. I knew it was deadly. I read about it in Dec and waited a bit but the news kept getting worse and worse, so I acted. I don’t need a liar-in-Chief to tell me not to worry when he was making sure he and his were safe.
CB from PC says
Sure you knew. Do you really think anyone wanted to mandate business closings except as a last resort?
Trump did nit want a “panic”.
Are the free food lines on US 1 not yet long enough for you?
The real liar here is Biden who now says he backed the opposite of what he actually said at the time. And let’s include Pelosi (come to Chinatown), Cuomo (It really will not be that bad). And for my money, calling Snyder a “hero” diminishes the significance of the term.
As I previously said, he pretty much had a safety compliant population, unlike some other counties in Florida, which kept the numbers way down.
I am so very grateful for the unending and scientific information that Bob Snyder has continued to provide the residents of Flagler county. He uses science and facts, this is what we need . It is brave for him to do this, in a time of wishful thinking, The virus will not disappear, vaccines need to be safe. Protect your friends and neighbors, wear your mask, wash your hands,, you are responsible for their health. ” Do on to others as you would done on to you” Thank you to all of the leaders and residents who understand,this will get better when we take the I out of it, and know , what we do together will help affect change.
Mike Cocchiola says
We are proud of you and thank you for your commitment to our community and our health in this ongoing crisis.
Exceptionally well written commentary, I agree with every word.
jim dana says
So refreshing – love these two men – keep up the great work.
Jane Gentile Youd says
Thank you all Flagler County Health Department. You came to the rescue of a major health hazard in January 2018 after only 1 phone
. County ignored complaints for years … ( Jerry Cameron now on top and might gut the unsafe old Hotel California.
But it was John Bey who ,with staff, went to see the abandoned hotel then drug house after just 1 phone call. They took.oeners to court…won judgment to knock it down But no funding. County planning to knick.it down thanks to.Jerry Cameron but 3 years after it should habe been– while Coffey was in.power
“…pushed through testing and masking and surveillance strategies that somehow managed to keep Flagler’s infection rate the lowest in the state. The numbers are still terrible of course: compared to countries that have successfully contained the virus, Flagler is still a disaster zone. (Its rate of cases per 100,000 in the past seven days alone is worse than that of all but 11 countries in the world, and way worse than the U.S. average). But that’s because Florida is a disaster zone, because its governor is as reckless a know-nothing in science as the president he pimps for.”
Make up your mind(s), is it a disaster zone or isn’t it ? I think there’s 18-20 deaths in the county to date and I challenge those. How many are Flu-Pneumonia to date ? CDC reported there were 21 in 2018 that were flu-Pneumonia. Until someone can tell us what the co-morbidities are, what the death rates for prior years for those were. I’m skeptical of the causes of death. I just have trouble believing that in 2020, nobody is pushing for the flu vaccine drive for seniors like they do every year & seasonally. I still don’t see a death toll that is any much worse than the normal flu year in Flagler county. 21 from the flu is 21. 18-20 in 6 months (or even all of 2020, 8 full months and 10 days) since Mid March is too close to say that this is a slight increase in flu-Pneumonia as a normal year. I mean the CDC’s last calendar reported year was 2018, that was 2 3/4 years ago. The population is ageing, only stands to reason that the elderly do pass away as they age. We have to also look at the other age groups as well, but I’m thinking as the overall number is roughly the same, the age grouping can’t be significantly or materially different ? But nobody has those numbers now do they ? I think they have the data & information, just aren’t reporting it or DeSantis is gag ordering it.
My deepest appreciation to Dr Bickel and our Flagler County Health Department Chief Mr. Snyder two more heroes among the thousands that risks their lives day in and day out fighting to save lives snatched by these Covid 19 not prevented with plenty time to enter our country in December 2019. Also my sincere Thank You as well to our Mayor Milissa Holland for mandate the masks and distancing in our city. These local officials unlike the WH have shown how much they care for us all.
The Voice Of Reason says
Gentlemen, Thank you for all you do and have done. Early in the pandemic I spoke with one of you about getting free packs of masks at the health department. I was able to come by that day and get some. At the time it was tough getting them commercially so this gave me much piece of mind. Thank you. Today, there is an elephant in the room I feel is not getting enough attention. Perhaps you can help again. (health Dept.) This involves cases of covid among students and staff at Old Kings Elementary School. The numbers are far higher in this school than any other in Flagler or Volusia. I have no idea why but it’s a scary reality. A family member works there. What I would hope for is an investigation into the cause and an intensified cleaning regimen. It’s an older facility and I suspect the ventilation system is insufficient. Compared to other schools in the state, I feel this school should go to 100% virtual learning until the cause can be identified and fixed. So called surgical actions aren’t working here. The school board seems not to be addressing it so I beg the health Dept. to intervene. Lastly, Janet Mcdonald is a disgrace and to see that picture of her by the buses with no mask on made me ill just looking at her. She needs to resign yesterday.
Beby L Kells says
First time I read your column and found it right on target. Science is what we follow in our household.
me to says
Thank you for the great article and the two heroes. Many of the people I see wear a mask but for those you who don’t I say get with it before you become infected.
Mary Murphy FNP says
Well researched commentary- Thanks for getting the word out. SCIENCE rocks!