The Flagler County School Board started its afternoon workshop Tuesday with a moment of silence for Tom Russell, the popular and celebrated Flagler Palm Coast High School principal who died last week of Covid-19 complications at 60. His memorial is on Friday in Daytona Beach. A Volusia County resident, he is one of 398 people who have lost their life to the disease. In Flagler, 47 residents have died of Covid.
Toward the end of the workshop, School Board member Janet McDonald, apparently heedless to the timing, delivered a string of outright falsehoods, disinformation and discredited claims about the disease, telling Bob Snyder, Flagler County’s director of public health, that she’d “like to see a little backing off of this fear about what a virus can do to you,” that there have been fewer, not more, deaths this year, that masks are “harmful,” that Covid testing is unreliable and ramped-up protections unnecessary when a focus on “wellness” would achieve better ends.
It isn’t the first time McDonald has made statements from her school board seat, at workshops or in meetings, that directly contradict school, county, state and federal policy or messaging about the coronavirus, against all reliable evidence and with little to no evidence of her own. Their timing aside, Tuesday’s statements were more aggressively false than previously. But they also reflected an increasing ordinariness of how, on the fringes of discussions about Covid-19, ideology or belief routinely replaces fact. That fringe is usually restricted to social media echo chambers. On Tuesday, McDonald elevated it into a school board meeting’s record.
McDonald is not a public health expert, a physician or a scientist. She is a reading specialist with a master’s in education, and was more recently certified a masseuse and hypnotist, according to her resume. She relies for her information at least in part on misreadings or retweets of conspiratorial and fringe theories or de-contextualized information, as was the case when she claimed to Snyder that “the illness we’re talking about is 99.99 percent recoverable for most people,” though the current mortality rate in the United States is closer to 2 percent, the disease has claimed well over 300,000 lives in this country alone so far, and the toll of both hospitalized patients and those who survive with lingering and debilitating complications is far higher.
McDonald, who seldom wears a mask–and when she does, frequently does so improperly in a gesture that for many has itself become an anti-masking statement–was sitting alongside her fellow school board members during a discussion about the district’s plan to roll out a new Covid-infection dashboard on Jan. 4. The dashboard will keep track of cases in the district in more detail than the district has been publicizing so far. (See: “Flagler Schools Will Replace Most Covid-Positive Alert Letters With Web-Based Dashboard Updated Daily.”)
Snyder was also at the table, as he’s been instrumental in the dashboard idea. His department will be providing the numbers. As a presentation by David Bossardet, the district’s point man on safety, proceeded, McDonald raised a question about the reliability of Covid-19 testing. She referred to her daughter and a friend of her daughter’s, who both tested positive in February. More recently, one tested negative and the other tested positive again, raising questions, in McDonald’s mind, about the reliability of testing.
“Are we doing a double test for those that are positive, just to make sure that it’s a positive positive?” McDonald asked.
Snyder explained to her the difference between a rapid and standard Covid test. The first is somewhat less reliable than the other, though a rapid test “is sensitive enough to catch the person infected at the most infectious time of the virus,” usually from day two to day eight or nine. Following Centers for Disease Control guidelines, “if I test positive with the rapid, that is enough for us to say right now you need to take precautions and you need to quarantine for the 14 days,” Snyder said. “However, if you test negative with the rapid test, CDC guidelines say that you should confirm that negative rapid test with a PCR gold-standard test. So it’s possible that someone could test negative with rapid, then test positive with PCR.”
“But they had to do the PCR test, and it had that differential experience too, so I’m concerned,” McDonald said. “So we’re relying on something that’s not 100 percent and affecting a whole lot of people.” In effect, McDonald had extrapolated from her daughter’s experience a conclusion “affecting a whole lot of people.”
“Well, the PCR test is 99 percent effective and it’s been that way for quite a while,” Snyder said.
“Interesting,” she replied. “And I guess my concern is that the illness we’re talking about is 99.99 percent recoverable for most people…”
This week she retweeted a chart showing “infection survival rates” at 99.9 percent for most age groups, though much lower for older age groups, as if to suggest that the rate is proof that the fear of Covid is overblown. The number eventually traces back to an article in Nature, which has never downplayed the severity or lethality of the disease. The article it had published aimed at giving countries guidance on Covid–management based on fatality rates by age groups, which rise significantly as age brackets rise. It had nothing to do with the conclusion McDonald or the tweets she had gleaned extrapolated from the article.
She continued, now questioning the “novel” part of the coronavirus, though it’s in its very name: “And so we’re talking about a virus, and this is the first time we’ve ever had this kind of global emphasis on so much restriction that–is this a pattern that do you anticipate we’re having to follow for every virus that comes along?”
“The coronavirus is a novel virus, it’s a new virus–”
“It’s related to the Sars Covid, so it’s not that really novel, and as we’ve had history–”
“I’m sorry, this virus is novel. It’s called the novel coronavirus,” Snyder said, flaring to a degree: his patience with alternative facts is thin, and he has a history of clashing with McDonald. A vaccine skeptic, last year she challenged the information he was providing on vaccines to parents, claiming it was incomplete. On Tuesday, she termed her wish for the kind of information she was presenting on Covid and testing a matter of “balance.”
“I know, and Bob, I just want to get some balance here, because I think with the population that we’re dealing with,” McDonald said, “we have more fear than we have reality-based, calm about things. We didn’t do this with H1N1, we didn’t do it with other viruses that were more damaging to school-aged populations.”
McDonald was being grossly misleading. The H1N1 pandemic of 2009 claimed some 12,500 deaths, according to the CDC, and was nowhere near as lethal as Covid-19. The risk of Covid is its promiscuous infectiousness and lethality for older people, making it the most dangerous pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918. McDonald is correct to the extent that protective measures such as lockdowns and social distancing in the United States are relatively new: they are the result of protocols first instituted in federal policy by George W. Bush last decade, and updated by the Obama administration in 2007.
“And that’s the other thing. We’re looking at cases. We’re not looking at deaths.”
It’s not clear what McDonald might’ve meant by “we’re not looking at deaths.” State and national dashboards and media at every level routinely report death counts, which this month began to total the equivalent of 3,000 a day in the United States–more than the loss of life on 9/11. On Wednesday, more than 3,600 lives were lost to Covid-19.
“The death rate, for the annual death rate, is over 50,000 lower than it has been annually, relative, in the relative years,” McDonald said. “So this pandemic that we have is actually less than a regular year of death.”
McDonald’s claim is false. In October, a CDC analysis found that the Covid death toll at the time “might underestimate the total impact of the pandemic on mortality,” with at least 100,000 excess deaths over and above Covid numbers. As even local hospital officials and physicians have cautioned, thousands of people are dying of strokes, heart attacks and other untreated medical episodes out of fear of going to the hospital–deaths that would otherwise have been avoided. On Sunday, a New York Times analysis based on CDC figures found that “at least 356,000 more people in the United States have died than usual since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the country in the spring,” with more than a quarter deaths above normal attributed to causes other than Covid.
“So I’m concerned that we need to get back to the reality that wellness is the goal of humans,” McDonald continued at the workshop, “and we really need to focus on what we can do to be well and how we can allow regular interface with those, because I have some folks who have kids at home because they don’t want kids with masks all the time, because it’s unhealthy.”
McDonald’s claim about masks is false. “There is no scientific, peer-reviewed evidence by reputable medical researchers and scientists that point out that masks are dangerous or unhealthy,” Snyder said in an interview today. There have been innumerable studies that conclude that masks are safe and effective.
“So I’d like to see a little backing off of this fear about what a virus can do to you, if we take precautions,” McDonald said. “We have so many good precautions and practices that are happening in our schools right now and our buses, and we’ve invested so much and yet it still seems to be an alarm every time we talk about this. Are we telling people enough, we’re not even looking to how much it’s changed, other than, oh good, we’ve got more cases, you need to ramp up whatever we’re doing, and I don’t think that’s helping, and so I’d like to see some balance in our message for wellness practices or health practices.”
Following board procedures, none of the board members or Snyder interrupted McDonald until she was done. Then Colleen Conklin spoke up.
“With all due respect,” she said, “I’d have to say I don’t know anybody that died from H1N1. No one. I probably don’t know anybody that died from the flu. I think we have a responsibility to put things, I agree, in perspective, and there are people that are afraid because we all now know someone who has died, and I think it’s not fair to pretend like we have a pretend-virus we’re dealing with. We have a virus that has impacted directly–” Conklin was making a reference to Tom Russell, the FPC principal, when McDonald interrupted.
“I don’t think that was my comment, Colleen.”
“That’s how I took it,” Conklin said.
“All right, all right, before we get to an argument here,” Trevor Tucker, who now chairs the board–he took over after McDonald in November–said, “does anyone have a problem with this dashboard? That’s what we’re really here to talk about.”
And with that, Tucker ended the digression. The discussion about the dashboard soon ended and the board, including McDonald, thanked Snyder and Bossardet.
Snyder didn’t get the chance to refuse McDonald at the meeting. He did so in an interview, addressing the more egregious falsehoods.
“The mortality rate is close to 2 percent,” he said, “10 to 12 percent of people with Covid are suffering and challenged to the point where they need hospitalization. On masks and dubious comparisons, he said: “We are past the point of debating the efficacy of masks and downplaying any deaths related to Covid 19.” He said that in the face of a nearly year-long campaign to adopt masks’ low-tech defenses, McDonald’s “comment about masks being unsafe and unhealthy is outrageous.”
“This is not H1N1 and can’t be compared to H1N1,” he said. “Downplaying the deaths, that’s not going to be getting us closer to stopping the spread. Now more than ever we need to be on the same page to keep the community safe, especially now that vaccination has begun. And everyone has warned us that the cold winter months are going to be a challenge. We just have to hang in there a few more months.”
He said residents must listen to “public health officials, our physicians” and other experts for guidance.
As for the “wellness” McDonald is calling for, “during normal times, health education, wellness, physical activity, access to fruits and vegetables, eating well to avoid obesity and heart disease and cancer and diabetes, these are topics and issues that every health department stresses every day. But this is not normal times. This is a worldwide pandemic. It is dangerous. It kills people. Now is not the time to be complacent, and the number one public health measures we can take and continue to take robustly are what we talk about, the social distancing, the handwashing, avoiding large crowds, etcetera.”
Snyder noted the importance of sticking to the “internal household bubble, stick to your family unit, keep the gatherings very small, especially when you’re around our elderly, friends and family,” as defending against Covid isn’t only a matter of self-defense, but especially a matter of defense on behalf of one’s older family members: Children and grandchildren may easily beat Covid, but as carriers, they are no less lethal to their elders.