The school district will begin providing free meals on March 23, and will prepare to offer distance learning if an extended closure is needed.
Flagler County is urging residents to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people, and encouraging restaurants to serve takeout only. And while the county does not have any verified cases of COVID-19 as of the afternoon of March 17, six Flagler County residents are "under investigation." Of those, three so far have been tested, and the tests have come back negative. Meanwhile, the school district is preparing to provide free lunches and breakfasts to students, and to offer distance learning if a more extensive school closure is needed.
"When you ignore the warnings that we have to remove yourself from that danger ... you may always have on your conscience that you traded someone’s life for a party or some social event."
JERRY CAMERON, Flagler County administrator
Local officials updated residents in a press conference the morning of March 17, streamed from the county's Emergency Operations Center over Facebook Live. People entering the Operations Center were required to have their temperature taken before entering.
"It's times like this that test a community's resolve; in fact, we even test our sense of community," County Administrator Jerry Cameron said. "It is a time to put aside any differences we might have and unite for the purpose of stopping the spread of this potentially devastating disease."
He encouraged people— including young people who aren't worried about their own risk — to take warnings seriously.
"When you ignore the warnings that we have to remove yourself from that danger ... you may always have on your conscience that you traded someone’s life for a party or some social event," Cameron said.
It is possible to have the virus and be without symptoms while still passing it to other people.
Emergencies require taking shelter, he said. "Just because this one’s invisible doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take shelter," he said. "I ask you all to consider the consequences of not following the advice."
Meanwhile, the county is canceling all activities involving more than 10 people that were slated to be run by county staff or take place at county facilities, said Jonathan Lord, the county's emergency management director. (County parks are remaining open.)
"Avoid social gatherings and groups of more than 10 people, to include eating in restaurants and bars," Lord said. Takeout is OK.
"Avoid social gatherings and groups of more than 10 people, to include eating in restaurants and bars."
— JONATHAN LORD, Flagler County Emergency Management director
Right now, the direction to restaurants to stick to takeout is a request. But if it's ignored, the county may have to look into enforcement procedures or a curfew, he said.
"I would rather use the soft arm of the law," Lord said. "I would prefer not to have to issue curfews."
"Also avoid discretionary travel," Lord added. "This does not mean you can not go to stores for supplies, but please maintain social distancing while you do so. ... Please do not panic, but also do not ignore this threat. Do your part to protect yourself, your family and all of our community."'
FIRST RESPONDERS PREPARE
Flagler County and local cities' first responders have adequate personal protective equipment and are taking steps to ensure that they don't run out, Lord said.
AdventHealth Palm Coast has added medical tents to screen people for the virus if that becomes necessary, and the state is working to ensure that enough ventilators will be available for local hospitals.
Residents who call 911, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly said, are now being asked a series of screening questions to determine if law enforcement officers responding to their emergency will need to take special precautions to protect themselves from the virus, such as wearing face masks.
"The communications center has a tough job to begin with, so when they ask these questions, just know why we are asking," he said.
Deputies and law enforcement officers may also take additional social distancing measures when responding to calls, he said, such as standing further away from people than usual or asking people to exit their house to speak.
But, he said. "We are not slowing down. If you are a criminal and you need to be arrested and go to the jail, you’re still going to be arrested and go to the jail."
The Sheriff's Office is also implementing steps at the county jail to protect staff and inmates from the virus, he said.
SENIORS WITH CHRONIC CONDITIONS MOST AT RISK
The people most at risk from COVID-19 are seniors over 65 who have chronic conditions such as COPD, heart disease or diabetes, Florida Department of Health-Flagler Administrator Bob Snyder said.
"These are the folks that need to stay home for sure," he said.
And although none of the known 173 COVID-19 cases in Florida are in Flagler County as of the afternoon of March 17, six Flagler County residents are "under investigation" for the illness. Three of those so far have been tested and found to be negative, Snyder said.
By the end of the week, he said, the state will have the ability to test 625,000 people.
"Because of this … we are going to see an uptick in the number of people who have the virus," he said. "So we’ll get a clear idea as to the extent of the community transmission and spread."
The criteria for testing is also becoming less restrictive, he said.
The state Department of Health also has a "COVID-19 data and surveillance dashboard" website, where it is posting the latest information on which counties have cases, and how many. (Go to https://bit.ly/2UkuY8q).
Once Flagler does have known cases, the Florida Department of Health in Flagler County will engage in "contact tracing" — determining who the infected person has been in contact with for the previous 14 days, and then checking with those people to see if they're ill.
It's a process the DOH-Flagler staff is already accustomed to using, Snyder said.
"We know what to do," he said. "We do contact tracing on a weekly basis to stop the spread of STDs."
He thanked the county government and the local city governments for embracing social distancing.
"We are definitely suggesting that gatherings of more than 10 people be delayed," he said. "This is so, so important."
He encouraged people to follow guidelines for hand washing — lather for 20 seconds — and to "imitate Dracula" if they cough and sneeze, by coughing into an elbow.
SCHOOL DISTRICT TO PROVIDE FREE MEALS FOR KIDS
Starting March 23, the Flagler County School District — which has extended its spring break by one week, through March 30 — will be offering free meals to people 18 or younger, Superintendent James Tager said.
The grab-and-go meals will be served from 10 a.m. to noon March 23-27 at four locations — Bunnell Elementary, Wadsworth Elementary, Indian Trails Middle School and Flagler Palm Cast High School — and will include a lunch for that day, plus a breakfast for the following day.
The young person who is receiving the meal will need to be physically present at the service site in order to receive the food. Local food banks are coordinating to offer food for adults, he said.
Custodial staff are disinfecting schools to prepare for reopening on March 30, Tager said.
Should a longer closure become necessary, he said, the schools will be prepared to offer distance learning.