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.
Please be Patriotic . Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands. I am a retired nurse. Our healthcare workers need your help. Do not turn your backs on them. They would never do that to you. Stop mask shaming.
Stop the spread. Stay home.
Thank you , because I give a darn.
How is it possible that a hypnotist is responsible for policies regarding our children?
Please let karma work….
Censor her to shut her up. She runs her mouth with total disinformation and the people are tired of these types of remarks. Then Vote her out or better yet make her Resign pronto She is poison and toxic
jim dana says
Agree completely – she is pathetic!!!
Just sayin says
OMG, What’s next MRS McDonald? The 1612 project is full of false facts and should not be taught? Do not fret my friends. the TRUMP vaccine is on it’s way.
FYI: it’s 1619 and no, it shouldn’t be taught as fact. It’s fictitious wishful thinking.
My mother always told me if I don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything anything at all…
As a Canadian official said,” if you don’t think COVID19 is serious you’re an idiot!”
Can We Please Stop Electing Morons says
Using McDonald’s logic about her daughter and daughter’s friend, couldn’t we say something about how 50% of high school principals in this county died from COVID so 1 out of 2 people don’t make it? It is just as ridiculous.
Sadly, this woman is on the School Board. What a terrible and embarassing example of leadership. I’d like to say that we are going backwards, but I graduated from FPCHS in the early 90s, and the School Board wasn’t filled with legitimate science deniers.
That is a ridiculous statement! We only have 2 principals so yes 1 out of 2 unfortunately passed away due to COVID. How many others have survived this?
And yes, there are many who get tested positive and then go to get checked again to see if they are negative and still are positive so we are counting the same person 2 or 3 times. That does lead to an overinflated number.
The reality is that 98% are still surviving this disease and there are certain age groups and higher risk categories that are more at risk. Everyone that I know who has gotten this has said they had symptoms for a day or two and they felt like they had the flu.
A lot of this is common sense- stay home if you are sick, wash your hands and your clothes (after being out in public) and go to the doctor if you don’t feel well. Stop running around in fear constantly! This is not healthy for anyone.
That was the point from the original poster. Anecdotal observations are useless.
Bugs Bunny said it best …..
“What a Maroon”
Sad Times says
My goodness….how did McDonald get voted onto the school board? I would have thunk that we citizens would have been smarter…than voting in someone who is so stupid.
I thought that school board members were smart. I thought school board members cared that students were given a chance to stay alive.
Why does she not care if students live or die?
She's a Quack says
Janet McDonald’s rhetoric is dangerous, and her fanciful ideas regarding the lethality of Covid-19 should be censured.We need to stop making mask wearing a political issue, stop weaponizing false and misleading information. She is a quack, and I for one am sick and tired of having to listen to her spout her nonsense.
John Stove says
This lady is such a moron that it is pathetic to watch and see her. The real shame is that she sits on a board that affects the lives of children and young adults.
You want to stand on the corner (you know, the one with all the red MAGA hats and flags) and yell out to anyone who is passing by that this is a “hoax”?….then do so on your own time.
Just do the job you are supposed to do and keep your fringe alternative fact opinions to yourself.
“Better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”
Trailer Bob says
And the earth is flat…right?
I think McDonald will be up for re election in 2022. Perhaps this time voters will take the time to educate themselves more about her, as well as other candidates, and not vote because of how many signs a candidate has around town.
Terrance Bryant says
2022 The same time MiniTrump is up for re-election.
Trailer Bob says
Correct. Look at how many signs Mullins had out that got him elected.
This is what we have making decisions for our kids. This is one reason I homeschool.
VERY SAD ! And anyone who voted for her should be ashamed of themselves!
She is a few bricks shy of a full load, just like her infamous hubby. For the life of me, I cannot understand why idiots like her are voted into any elected office. So far, thank God the community has rejected her husband’s repeated bids for elected positions. We don’t need either of them. She is only showing her ignorance and glaring lack of common sense in the face of this horrible coronavirus pandemic that has hit our state especially hard, especially right now with the highest rate of infection FL has seen since this summer.
James M. Mejuto says
re: Janet McDonald . . . OK folks we voted for her to the school board and now we pay the price for our
ignorance and refusal to completely research each candidate running for office.
These are Republicans we’re dealing with, people who have no morals and no allegiance to our city.
Part of the problem is a democrat party that is completely bankrupt with no new ideas.
Concerned Citizen says
Who’s this we?
Speak for yourself. I made it a mission to not vote for her or any other incumbents this year. Sadly the majority has spoken. ANd we can see how well it’s working out.
Stupid MF says
When do we get to vote this nut bag out of here
Percy's mother says
Well, we had a fake PhD with a fake license to practice in a mental health capacity actually practicing mental health in Flagler County elected to a school board position, so this goes with the flow.
Nevertheless, Ms. McDonald’s term on the school board will be up soon, so hopefully things will improve.
By the way, there are STILL people in this county out in public in stores STILL not wearing a mask, which is shocking in itself. AND very annoying.
McDonald must watch Fox News and listens to Gov. DeSantis who is well known for hiding the truth about this virus to the people in the State of Florida because his idol Donald idol does the same.
Gov. DeSantis follows everything Donald does because Gov. DeSantis is too weak to be a true leader of any State he just wants to please Donald.
A sad time when this pathetic person is even acknowledged in any kind of press. Like a few have mentioned , she is so toxic for this community and a poor excuse for a leader. She should be removed as her views do not and are not supported by the majority of the community.
Oh my goodness… I think this is the final nail in that coffin. Someone needs to resign or be replaced….
Edith Campins says
We need to vote her out. She is not just deluded and ignorant, she is dangerous.
I have a distinct feeling that Ms. McDonald is a QAnon disciple.
Both the MacDonald’s are an embarrassment that this county will, seemingly, never get a break from.
Given her stated beliefs and habits, people in the know would be best off physically “backing off” Ms. MacDonald…from a very safe distance.
Thank you, Mrs. McDonald, for injecting some sense into the wuhan virus debate.
“It used to be an unwritten philosophical rule in society that everyone’s well being was their own responsibility, not anyone else’s. . . This has now been completely upended, and the argument has been made and accepted by forced mask mandates, forced economic shutdowns, forced social distancing, and so on. The new argument: it’s now everyone else’s responsibility for an individual’s well being.
“This new argument is inherently communist, along with all of its foundational failings, and allows any body with power, government and corporation, to pass any dystopian and authoritarian rule/law imaginable. This allows forced mandatory vaccines. “For the good of the people.” “If it saves just one life.” “We know what’s best for you, better than you.”
“Helping others isn’t inherently wrong. Wanting to help your community isn’t inherently wrong. ***Forcing people to do so is.*** It’s the same difference between charity and taxation. In the end, guess who accumulates all that power to decide for you, what’s “best for you”?
“This . . . is backwards, philosophically incorrect, and evil. We accepted it from fear mongering, manipulation, and outright lies from those in power, and our own complacency. This will absolutely not stop with mandatory masks.”
~ Eamon Holland
~ Eamon Holland
Concerned Citizen says
My wife and my mother who is nearly 75 are both Physcians Assistants. My mom recently retired.
Perhaps Janet McDonald could stop spewing enough misinformation long enough that she could spend some time with my wife working with Covid patients. It’s serious enough that the Doctors office my mom was working for in Atlanta forced her to finally retire as she is considered high risk. It was devestating.
Wear those masks and save the arguments for when we flatten this thing. Your right to not wear a mask DOES NOT supercede the right to live. The longer you fight this the longer we have to deal with it.
We should be discussing ideas more and not shutting down dialogue in the name of spreading false information. I am sick of unimpressive and largely uninformed people trying to silence ideas that are contrary to their confirmation bias. How do these authoritarian people get elected?