There were as many new, confirmed coronavirus cases in the single week ending Saturday in Flagler County–398–than there’d been in the entirety of the pandemic from February through July 4. The prognosis for the days ahead is worse. And the county may get very little, if any, more vaccines over the next five weeks, local officials say.
Bob Snyder, who heads the Flagler County Health Department, spoke as if at a wake when he updated the Flagler County Commission this morning, and in many ways it was. It was his grimmest update yet in nearly a year of reporting on the pandemic’s local consequences.
“November, December, and now January have sequentially been the worst months for spread of the virus, suffering and stress on resources,” Snyder said. “Right now, all of our indicators regarding the virus continue to trend upward, and upward in the wrong direction, as is the case in all the counties here in Florida. As predicted, the virus spread after Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s, and now we are seeing the negative effects of holiday travel, as expected.”
Weekly case loads have broken records each of the last four weeks, though in Flagler case have not fallen since early October: they would level off from time to time, then keep rising. Because the base level of infections was already high, the current surge, when it hit, was bound to be the worst yet.
There were 26 people hospitalized at AdventHealth Palm Coast today on a primary diagnosis of Covid-19, by far the highest total yet since the beginning of the pandemic and a further indication of why the hospital, and others in the Advent network, went to “Red Status” last week, as they are being overrun with patients the way many hospitals across the country have been.
On Sunday, Covid took the life of the 51st local resident. It was Jon Netts, the former mayor.
“It’s a tragedy that we’re losing some really important leaders in this community due to Covid,” County Commissioner Andy Dance said. “I’ll go even back to Mr. Russell, an amazing leader at the high school, and this is just–it’s everywhere, it’s just sad for the community that we are going to be missing these people.” Tom Russell, the celebrated principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School and long-time administrator in Volusia, died in early December.
Locally, cases, close contacts, hospital admissions, ER visits associated with Covid-like symptoms “are all increasing and still have not peaked,” Snyder said. “Workloads for our real heroes, hospital, long-term care, health department and other health care workers has significantly grown.”
Worse yet: there are no vaccines for Flagler in sight. Not even for people who got their first dose and will need their second dose.
“We learned yesterday from the state that zero doses will be allocated to Flagler County this week,” Snyder said.
The forecast from Jonathan Lord, the emergency management chief, was even more dire: “The state forewarns for the next five weeks, expect very little, if any vaccine to show up, for us to be able to coordinate with the health department, for the health department to be able to give out. It’s going to go to some other priority area, higher density populations. I don’t know this as a fact, but the fact that we had the lowest case rate for many, many months, which was something I was glad we did–we no longer have the lowest case rate, we’re number six from the bottom now–that probably plays into it a little bit. We did well as a community, therefore they’re focusing on other priority areas.”
Commissioner Dave Sullivan spoke of a recent Northeast Regional Council meeting “where the state rep talked about the availability of the vaccine. It’s just not there right now and it’s going to take a long time to come forward,” Sullivan said.
When additional vaccines do turn up, local officials will be prohibited by rules set out by Gov. Ron DeSantis from giving priority to those who need a second dose.
“They’re prohibited from holding onto vaccine for second doses at this time,” Lord said of health department officials. The county has records of all those who took their first dose. “If we are told we are allowed to reach out and prioritize second doses, we will call back our residents and help them get an appointment with the health department to do so. But as Bob said, it’s if. We don’t even know if that’s something we’ll be allowed to do.” Right now, that’s prohibited. “Some counties, when people got their first dose, allowed them to make a theoretical appointment for the future. We could have done that. That would have even further taxed our system, but I’m going to tell you right now, a lot of those counties are going to have to call back those people and say, sorry, we can’t give you vaccines.”
“It will take months to vaccinate all who want the vaccine<’ Snyder said, without giving an actual timeline, which, based on the current pace, would be dispiriting. “We will get there. So please be patient. Be kind. And pray for those who are afflicted.”
So far the health department received 1,700 vaccines in two shipments, the last one last Monday. The supply is depleted after first responders and others 65 and over who managed to win what amounted to an appointment lottery–slots vanished within minutes of being made available last week–were vaccinated, especially on January 2 at the Flagler County Fairgrounds.
“On the 2nd we did not turn anyone away who was 65 years of age and older,” Snyder said. “That day, 541 individuals were vaccinated over a four-hour period. In return we received numerous phone calls, emails, from both seniors and health care workers, they were grateful and complimented the health department, emergency management, the CERT team and Flagler volunteers for our preparation set-up, efficiency, and the family-like cheerful atmosphere that our little army of caregivers created.”
But the department was also brutally criticized for not announcing that the event would be open to those 65 and over. It had spoken of it as being for first responders. But in accordance with the governor’s executive order, which prioritizes first responders and people 65 and over, the department could not legally turn away older people. And advertising the event ahead of time for people 65 and over would have resulted in a mass turnout neither the department nor its volunteers were equipped to handle.
“Nothing that we will do will contradict the phasing outlined by the governor in his executive order,” Snyder said.
DeSantis, a close ally of the president, has in many ways reflected the administration’s catastrophic rollout of the vaccine with its lack of coordinated planning and casting off of most such responsibilities on local governments and agencies. Lord today was grateful that the state is about to take back control of the appointment process, freeing the county from managing what had been frustrating to residents and a technical nightmare for the county. “The state,” Lord said, “control the vaccine, they control the doses, they control the criteria, they should also in our mind control the appointment process since we can’t answer a lot of the questions of why can’t I get an appointment, why can someone else get it.”
Local officials were candid about the challenges they faced within the federal and state restrictions. “Currently, vaccine inventory is grossly inadequate to vaccinate the 36,000 persons 65 and older in our community,” Snyder said. “It’s kind of hard to do with only 1700 doses received and disseminated the last two weeks. Right now it is an understatement that demand exceeds supply.”
The picture he painted statewide was not reassuring for its relegation of Flagler to third-tier status. “Statewide, only 254,000 doses were available and allocated to 17 county health departments, a few hospital systems, churches, the Villages at Lady Lake, a Hard Rock Cafe in South Florida, and other state-sponsored vaccination sites,” Snyder said. “The Department of Health and county emergency management proved last week that we are ready and able to mass vaccinate and get doses into arms quickly.” But without vaccines to administer, it is powerless.
Lord and Snyder are holding out hopes that current protocols will not define protocols once Joe Biden is in office. “The focus changes, those who may have seen the news, the whole process of how the vaccine will be rolled out when the administration in D.C. changes, too,” Lord said. Biden at the end of December said that the current pace would “take years, not months,” to get Americans vaccinated. He described it as “the greatest operational challenge we’ve ever faced as a nation” but said “we’re going to get it done.”
Trump has been largely absent from the governance since before the ele3ction, and his administration has been hemorrhaging cabinet members on down.
Nearly 23,000 people have died of the disease in Florida, 375,000 across the nation. The seven-day, average daily death toll is now above 3,000 across the United States for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic–a 9/11 or worse per day. It’s still rising, with over 4,000 deaths on a single day over the weekend.
With 20,000 cases reported last Friday, the seven-day caseload average in Florida is above 15,000 per day in a state where DeSantis continues to take pride in keeping restrictions between minimum and zero, where he still forbids local governments from enforcing mask mandates, where he forbids restrictions on business operations or gatherings, where his cavalier attitude toward mask-wearing has undermined public health messaging, and where he’s defied Centers for Disease Control guidelines and countered vaccination priorities for front-line workers, including teachers, to focus on those 65 and over.
We ask all residents to please not be complacent and reaffirm your commitment to public health measures,” Snyder said, his tone almost despairing of more lax attitudes that have set in over time, between Covid fatigue and especially the sense that with the vaccine now circulating, people can relax. Snyder in previous interviews said that attitude can be deadly, as it is currently a gross miscalculation.
Sullivan, who had initiated the county’s voluntary mask mandate last summer, joining more strongly worded city initiatives, spoke publicly against misinformation and Covid deniers as he had not done so previously–and as no member of the commission had.
“I remember at the beginning of this, the non-supporters feel like, well, you don’t even know anybody who’s had Covid, or been sick from it,” Sullivan said. “I venture to say, if you go on out of your house one time now, or talk to anybody in the community, you know somebody who has come down with Covid and gotten very sick from it. Right now we are in the most critical point in the process, and I’m really afraid we in Flagler County have done everything we can to keep business going, keep things open, and I think we’ve done a good job on that. I think the health department and all of us have done a good job on holding the percentages down. But right now those percentages are not down. We’re in double figures every day on positivity rate. We’ve had days of over 100 cases for Covid cases here recently. That’s not the way it was months ago, when everybody was worried about it and we put in all these rules and regulations. Right now, right now, we’re at the most dangerous point we can possibly be on this disease, and if we don’t take seriously what’s been said, then it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Sullivan added: “I think it’s important for us to speak out on the facts, not somebody’s weird idea that this is some kind of thing done by the government to hurt us all. It’s not. It’s serious, and we’ve got to take it that way.”