Florida state labs can test for coronavirus, cutting wait time for results

The development removes a major barrier as local and state health officials scramble to keep up with the spread of the virus.
A worker wears a face mask to spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea this week. Florida officials said Saturday they had opened local testing sites so suspected cases could confirmed more quickly.
A worker wears a face mask to spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea this week. Florida officials said Saturday they had opened local testing sites so suspected cases could confirmed more quickly. [ AHN YOUNG-JOON | Associated Press ]
Published Feb. 29, 2020|Updated Feb. 29, 2020

As of Saturday, all three Florida Department of Health labs — in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville — can now test for novel coronavirus, ending weeks of reliance on a federal lab in Atlanta and drastically cutting the wait times for results.

The development means that state health officials will be able to confirm cases of the respiratory illness, also known as COVID-19, within 24 to 48 hours, as opposed to the three-to-five-day wait time for results that has been the status quo for weeks.

The breakthrough comes a day after the state surgeon general broke the Florida government’s silence on how many people had been tested and were being monitored for the virus. Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said Friday that 15 people had been tested in Florida, four were “under investigation” for possible novel coronavirus infection and more than 150 others were being monitored. There has yet to be a confirmed case in Florida.

Those numbers were shared as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has expanded its criteria for who should be tested for the virus and developed new guidance for COVID-19 testing kits, which had been languishing in Florida state labs for weeks while state officials waited for the CDC to clear them for use.

“As of today, all COVID-19 testing will take place in Department of Health labs,” said Dr. Shamarial Roberson, the state’s deputy secretary for health, told the Miami Herald on Saturday.

In-state testing ability represents a major hurdle cleared by local and state health officials who had been scrambling to get up to speed as COVID-19 spreads rapidly outside of Asia, mounting a more significant threat to the tourist destination of Florida.

In recent days, the Miami mayor expressed frustration over not having the kits in the state’s lab as Miami-Dade braces for two of the largest events on its calendar: Spring Break and the Ultra music festival.

Federal officials told physicians on Friday they should now be determining whether any patient who presents with severe pneumonia symptoms should undergo tests for novel coronavirus, regardless of their travel history. They have identified China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea as countries with widespread or sustained community transmission of the disease.

Dr. David Farcy, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, was on a teleconference with federal health officials on Friday. He told the Herald shortly after that getting the state testing ability online in the following day would be a crucial step in preparing South Florida to respond to a potential outbreak.

As of now, case numbers remain concentrated in China, but the virus is spreading rapidly to countries outside of Asia, posing a greater risk to Florida, which regularly sees waves of travelers from Latin America and other parts of the world. The latest update from the World Health Organization had more than 83,000 people infected — about 79,000 of those in China. Novel coronavirus has killed more than 2,800, all but 67 of those fatalities occurring in China.

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The World Health Organization reported Friday afternoon that five countries — Belarus, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand and Nigeria — had reported new cases of coronavirus in the previous 24 hours.

Who should get tested for novel coronavirus?

Symptoms of coronavirus are very similar to influenza. They can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. But you can only get coronavirus from traveling to areas that have cases or being in contact with people who have the virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that unless you fit those parameters you stay at home as if you have the flu. But if you do suspect you might have novel coronavirus, you should contact a medical professional and disclose that. Symptoms could appear anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure.

On top of following all the other precautions, people who suspect they might have coronavirus should stay at home except to seek medical care, call ahead before seeing a doctor and keep themselves separate from other people and even pets in their home.

There are simple steps one can take to reduce their likelihood of a novel coronavirus infection and prepare for a potential outbreak: most importantly, washing your hands frequently and thoroughly.

Ben Conarck covers health care for the Miami Herald.