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Florida reports 112 new coronavirus cases as governor laments lack of testing

“We need to do way more tests,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said, highlighting a demand for swabs as the Florida caseload rises to 328.

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida leaders reported the biggest surge in coronavirus cases yet Wednesday, and an eighth death, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis asserted that the state is not testing enough people to know how widespread the disease is.

Officials were tracking 328 coronavirus cases, which causes the disease COVID-19, as of Wednesday evening. That total covered residents and visitors diagnosed in-state, as well as six Floridians tested and isolated elsewhere. Hillsborough County has seen the most cases in Tampa Bay with 14. The University of South Florida announced that an employee in its counseling office has tested positive for the illness. University President Steve Currall said the staffer had contact with 13 students and several coworkers, who are all being monitored for symptoms.

Related: Thursday update: Florida up to 390 known coronavirus cases, including 46 in Tampa Bay area

The day brought renewed concern for the state’s vulnerable population of older and chronically ill residents, with 19 long-term care facilities home to either confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, according to Mary Mayhew, the secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration. She did not identify where those places are.

A 77-year-old man from a Broward County assisted-living facility had coronavirus when he died, state officials announced this week. The governor said that two other residents of that home who died tested negative for the disease.

As health officials struggle to keep pace with the pandemic, DeSantis said Florida has increased testing dramatically but not enough. As of Wednesday, the Department of Health reported 2,800 tests, including 1,140 with results pending. A week before, it had reported just 471 tests. More hospitals and private labs have started processing results.

"I think we need to do way more tests than that,” the governor said.

Related: All Pinellas beaches will shut down after Friday night

The testing shortage has undermined the response to coronavirus across the country, with doctors saying the American government does not have a clear sense of how many people could have the disease and how far it is spreading. Discussion of the problems has swirled mostly around complicated technical kits and chemical components but DeSantis highlighted Florida’s need for one of the simplest tools: swabs.

“Just getting a test kit doesn't mean you can just do the test. You've got to get other parts,” he said. “I've learned a lot about how this works.”

The long Q-tip-like swabs are what doctors and nurses need to collect samples from people’s noses and throats. DeSantis said Florida put in an order for 500,000 swabs a week and a half ago, but the state has not received them. He did not say how many swabs the state has now, or where the order was made.

DeSantis said he would talk to President Donald Trump about Florida’s needs.

The lack of testing here means that even as the state reports dozens of new coronavirus infections each day, officials cannot determine the extent to which the numbers are indicative of expanded testing capability versus the true spread of the disease.

“It’s really hard to tell the difference at this point,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida.

That presents problems with understanding the all-important curve Americans are trying to lower by avoiding crowds. The curve shows the number of cases added to an area each day. In Florida, it is growing. Among the newest patients is a 6-year-old boy in Palm Beach County, the youngest yet. Broward and Miami-Dade counties are connected to the most cases, 80 and 77 respectively. U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, announced he is the first federal lawmaker to test positive for the disease, though he remains in Washington and it was unclear whether he was counted in the latest state total.

Levine advised residents not to “worry as much about the actual number of cases” as their role in preventing the disease’s spread by avoiding big gatherings and groups where the virus can pass from person to person through droplets that fly when someone sneezes or coughs. Coronavirus causes symptoms including fever and shortness of breath and can lead to severe respiratory infections.

As the disease has locked up American life, many smaller Florida counties are reporting test numbers in the single digits. According to the state’s latest update, that includes Citrus, St. Lucie, Hardee, several places in the Panhandle, and Leon — home to Tallahassee, the seat of power in Florida, where only eight tests have been reported. A handful of other counties were not listed by the state as reporting tests. In Clay County, home to 212,000 people and a man in his 70s whose death health officials announced late Wednesday, the state was reporting 16 tests.

DeSantis emphasized that several Florida counties have not announced any positive coronavirus cases but did not address the lack of testing in those areas.

Even in places where medical workers are testing more widely for coronavirus, residents have expressed frustrations. The initial supply shortage and strict criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has meant that for weeks testing has been reserved mainly for those who traveled to select outbreak areas or who might have been directly exposed to coronavirus and showing symptoms. Officials have said Florida has “community spread” of COVID-19, indicating some patients have tested positive without knowing how they came into contact with the virus.

Naila Alan, 37, of Tampa sits with her Aussiedoodle Savannah at the end of a pier at Davis Islands Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Tampa. Alan was supposed to take a 12 day vacation to Turkey Wednesday but had to cancel due to the coronavirus pandemic. She now plans to stay home.
Naila Alan, 37, of Tampa sits with her Aussiedoodle Savannah at the end of a pier at Davis Islands Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Tampa. Alan was supposed to take a 12 day vacation to Turkey Wednesday but had to cancel due to the coronavirus pandemic. She now plans to stay home. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Leaders have vowed to quickly increase the state’s hospital capacity so coronavirus patients can be treated as the pandemic worsens. In places with more severe outbreaks, like Italy, hospitals have not been able to meet demand. DeSantis said the state needs more masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to keep doctors and nurses safe.

Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz has ordered at least 2 million masks as well as 500,000 sets of gloves and gowns. Health workers are trying to move additional supplies and get a field hospital set up near The Villages, a community of 51,000 people, mostly retired, in Central Florida. They want to expand drive-through coronavirus testing there and elsewhere.

“They’re going to be driving up in their golf carts and getting swabbed,” DeSantis said. People in The Villages are still playing golf, according to the governor, but should be respecting social distancing recommendations and staying six feet apart from other groups.

DeSantis said he worries those who may have minor or no symptoms and have not been tested will spread the disease, especially younger Floridians and visitors. He has declined to close beaches across the state but has urged people to avoid groups of more than 10 — guidance that has been openly flouted in places like Pinellas County.

The governor also said Wednesday he does not want to shut down daycare centers, even though K-12 schools are closed, because he worries about the strain on parents. DeSantis was behind leaders of other states in restricting or closing bars and restaurants — a step he took Tuesday morning — and has spoken multiple times about concerns over “mitigation fatigue." He expects Floridians to eventually get tired of mass closures across the state.

“I don’t want to shut every aspect of life down,” DeSantis said.

Times/Herald staff writers Langston Taylor, Justine Griffin, Anastasia Dawson, Emily L. Mahoney and Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.

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