At the end of the Flagler County School Board meeting Tuesday evening, Board member Janet McDonald, referring to a discussion about the fate of the Belle Terre Swim and Racket Club, said of school officials: “The community is starting to realize that they can approach anybody at any time and that’s the way to get clear and honest information back rather than some of the things that might end up in print that’s not accurate.”
McDonald is decidedly not among the board members who disseminate “clear and honest information.” At least not about the coronavirus pandemic.
“She is the antithesis of what public health is all about at this very critical moment,” Bob Snyder, who heads the Flagler County Health Department, said this evening.
Audio: The McDonald Statement
Snyder was reacting to a nearly four-minute statement McDonald made at the end of a school board workshop Tuesday afternoon when she repeated a string falsehoods about masks and the covid-19 vaccines, which she said “is not a vaccine,” and called for a lessening of restrictions in schools even as public health officials, scientists and the Centers for Disease Control are warning against prematurely reducing mask-wearing, social distancing and other safety measures.
“I would like to see us not wait for the world to face the reality that masks are making people less healthy, because of the bacterial load,” McDonald claimed, falsely. “It’s inhibiting social, emotional and communication when it’s not really helping people. I know that there’s an issue there. So I don’t know who we invite in, but I would hope that everybody does better research on actual science behind mask-wearing.” She claimed, falsely, that masks are “a piece of cloth that has never been studied for any validity for limiting viral contagion or transmission” even as she called for looking at “the real science behind this,” but without once herself citing evidence to back up her claims.
“It’s not good faith. She’s referencing a scientific debate, but there’s no science there,” said Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia health departments and an architect with Snyder of the county’s response to the pandemic, which has kept Flagler at or near the bottom of Florida’s 67 counties for least amount of infections. Bickel, who has kept up with the pandemic science–he reads five to 10 studies a day–says none of McDonald’s claims about masks are backed up by science.
And he called “egregiously wrong” McDonald’s one of McDonald’s most startling claim: that “ “communities that have masks repeatedly have bigger transmissions and bigger incidences of the virus.”
“How absurd. How absurd, and just unhinged,” Snyder said at the end of a day he’d spent with his health department staff and volunteers inoculating 750 people at the county fairgrounds, the most in a day so far in Flagler. “Oh my gosh, all false, all alternative facts, nothing that she said is backed up by reputable science, research, virologists who are credentialed, national public health leaders and physicians, Dr. Scott Rivkees, our state surgeon general, Dr. Stephen Bickel, our medical director at the local health department. She does not have a medical degree of any sort, and to make such statements in her positions of influence is absolutely a danger, and it is incomprehensible.”
None of McDonald’s fellow school board members challenged her statements nor referred to it, either at the workshop or at the subsequent board meeting a few hours later, though they may prefer to hold their tongue rather than engage in a debate conducted on different standards of evidence.
It isn’t the first time McDonald has used her position on the board to peddle false or irresponsible claims, nor of giving her remarks a searingly insensitive timing: she chose a December board meeting, days before a memorial for the late Tom Russell, the popular Flagler Palm Coast High School principal who died of Covid-19, to downplay the disease’s death toll. On Tuesday, she made her remarks just as the nation was marking 500,000 deaths from covid–more deaths than in both world wars and the Vietnam war combined. When school opened, she proudly appeared in school photos without a mask, even as all staffers and students around her wore masks, in accordance with district directives. McDonald has often used her Twitter feed to push or recirculate disinformation, including about the pandemic.
Tuesday she claimed, as she has in the past, that an individual’s strong immune system is a better deterrent of the virus, and called for rejecting “overarching restriction” before making another outright false statement: the vaccine, she said, “is not a vaccine, and please do your research on that as well.” (Bickel has heard the claim errantly, but not in scientifically valid circles. “I’m sure there’s some point they’re trying to make. I don’t know what it is,” he said.)
“I would like to see us have some real conversations about what we do as a district and not be held to an outside entity for clearance on processes that are in place,” McDonald concluded, seemingly referring to the CDC or the local department of health.
“We have a very productive, cordial and collaborative relationship with our School Superintendent, Cathy Mittelstadt, and David Bossardet, who is our point person for the covid response,” Snyder said, going on to name a series of other administrative and line-duty staffers throughout the district and their work with the health departments during emergencies.
“We just benefit and respect this relationship, and because of that,” the health department director continued, “I am convinced that the school system and the school board will continue, despite what Janet McDonald says, to follow CDC and Department of Health guidelines relative to this pandemic and the response to it. We are in the very important vaccine phase, suffering and cases have declined, hospitalizations have declined and we are on our way out of this. We’ve been into this for a year, and to hear this kind of nonsense at this time is unproductive and it makes absolutely no sense when it comes to the appropriate response to this horrible virus. Every person in our community probably knows someone who has had the virus or has been hospitalized or has succumbed to it, so to at this point in time question the effectiveness of public health measures like social distancing and mask wearing is dangerous.”
Snyder called McDonald’s use of her school board platform to disseminate falsehoods “unconscionable.”
Snyder said the department will vaccinate 750 more people at the fairgrounds on Thursday and 200 on Friday, an independent living facility’s residents are all scheduled for shots on Saturday, and the county is set to receive 1,600 doses next week, double the usual count, as vaccination drives ramp up–with a meeting on Friday between the Food and Drug Administration and Johnson and Johnson that’s expected to clear that company’s vaccine. The one-shot vaccine is 72 percent effective, with 86 percent effectiveness in stopping serious complications from covid and near 100 percent effective in preventing death, Snyder said.