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TAMPA — Nearly eight weeks after the United States announced its first confirmed case of the COVID-19 disease, elected officials and health care leaders say Hillsborough County finally received sorely needed materials from the state’s Division of Emergency Management: 900 federally-approved coronavirus sample collection kits.
It’s a start, but hardly enough to meet the demand in a county with a population of more than 1.4 million, a spokeswoman for City of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times Saturday night.
And even with the new shipment of testing materials, it seemed unlikely Saturday evening that the county’s first mobile testing station — a drive-through clinic erected in the parking lot of Raymond James Stadium — would finally be able to open to the public the following morning.
For that to happen they need more collection kits, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said. But how many more is a question that has yet to be answered, she said.
Florida’s Director of the Division of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz said these items are in short supply everywhere. His office is sending out kits as soon as the state receives them. He argued that the 900 kits sent to Hillsborough County would be enough to get a sample collection site up and running. Drive-through sites generally see about a couple of hundred people a day, he said.
Moskowitz said other testing centers in South Florida began with a limited number of kits and were continually restocked. The same could happen in Hillsborough.
“I would urge them to put those to use in the community and start testing,” he said.
Moskowitz said collection kits, which include two swabs and a vial are only produced by a handful of manufacturers. The federal government is the largest buyer, which leaves a small amount to be rationed out to states which are buying directly. He said Florida has placed small orders with nearly 30 medical vendors because large orders are getting left unfilled.
“We, Florida, are competing for resources against everybody but Antarctica,” he said.
Jay Wolfson, a public health and policy expert at the University of South Florida, said swabs are hard to get because they’re not just a Q-Tip. The swabs are specially made from a medical grade fiber or plastic so the test isn’t compromised. But without them the tests can’t be completed.
“It’s like having a ticket to get on the train that’s not valid today. You can’t get on,” Wolfson said.
He said rapid-test kits, like what’s used for strep throat or a pregnancy test, are in development for COVID-19 but even then they’ll still have to be manufactured and shipped, which can continue to bog down accessibility.
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Hillsborough County has produced 47 of the 763 positive COVID-19 cases in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health. But that doesn’t mean the county has a lower rate of infection, Castor said Saturday.
According to the health department, Hillsborough County has only collected 819 samples for testing from public health labs since March 1, when a Tampa woman became the first county resident to test positive for the virus. By comparison, Miami-Dade County had collected nearly 1,400 samples by Saturday night, and Broward County had collected nearly 1,500 samples.
Those two counties currently lead the state in numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, with Miami-Dade reporting 169 cases on Saturday and Broward reporting 164 cases.
According to an announcement from the health department, Broward’s Memorial Healthcare System drive-through test site collected 745 samples in the first day of operation, and on Saturday the site received an additional 5,000 collection kits from the state.
In an update on the coronavirus delivered to Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group on Thursday, Dr. Douglas Holt, the director of the health department in Hillsborough County, said his agency had only 120 collection kits in its possession. And those kits aren’t the federally-approved models being handed down by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Holt said. The county only got those kits - essentially a specialized swab used to collect samples from the throat and nostril - by asking commercial sites and suppliers for help.
“It’s a very simple process, in and out, probably takes about 30 seconds,” Castor said Saturday. “But the problem is you can’t set up a remote testing site if you don’t have the collection kits.”
Apart from collecting initial samples from the public, those who have tested positive for the virus in the county’s hospitals are required to stay in isolation until at least two back-to-back coronavirus tests come back with negative results, Castor said.
And there’s also a secondary snag holding up the county’s testing ability.
“There’s a major concern with our health providers because they don’t want the collection to surpass the ability to actually process the tests,” Castor said. “Once you do the collection, those individuals are asked to self-quarantine until they get back the results, so that creates this gulf where we have to get individuals to stay home and stay away from each other.”
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