TALLAHASSEE — With less than a week left before the expiration of his executive order that shut down the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday said he would expand the opportunities for people to obtain COVID-19 tests by allowing pharmacists to administer them and 200 National Guard medics to test residents and staff in elder care facilities.
But as the governor works to understand the extent to which the highly contagious disease caused by the novel coronavirus is prevalent in communities, he left many details unanswered about what’s ahead for testing.
DeSantis said he was inclined to allow asymptomatic people to obtain tests but the rules were still being worked out.
“If you’re not symptomatic but you think you may have been exposed — maybe someone you know or maybe you were just in an environment and you figured out that there may have been an outbreak somewhere — we want those people to be able to go in and get tested,’’ DeSantis said at a press conference at the Capitol. “Because that is really going to help us identify how much this disease has spread in different areas.”
The governor said he was still working out rules related to how many tests would be available at pharmacies and who will be allowed to be tested there.
Doctors across the state have limited the hard-to-obtain tests to people over age 65 or those who have either been in close contact with someone who has tested positive or show active symptoms, leaving thousands of people who fear they are asymptomatic carriers of the disease with few options.
Testing has been an issue that has gotten little attention from the task force of business executives and elected officials DeSantis assembled this week to discuss what will be needed to re-open the state. But public health experts, from the president’s top advisers to those the Florida Department of Health has relied on, have said that access to readily available and rapid results is essential to being able to relax social distancing requirements.
DeSantis also announced Friday that he remains focused on protecting older Floridians, particularly those at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which have seen nearly one in five of the 29,648 cases in Florida and have had 271 deaths, the age group with the highest fatality rate.
He said he will expand the 40-person “strike team” of National Guard medical personnel to a 200-person team that will continue to test staff and residents in elder care homes. On Friday, the number of long-term care facilities that had a resident or staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 rose to 342, still less than 10% of the 3,800 facilities in the state.
However, industry officials have complained that the strike teams are often too little, too late, because they are only arriving to test residents and staff after someone in the facility has tested positive. Instead, administrators have asked to be able to test all residents and staff members, who may be carrying the disease but showing no symptoms.
In an interview on public radio Friday, Martin Goetz, chief executive officer of River Gardens, an elder-care community in Jacksonville, said he has been refused access to the tests by the Department of Health because no one has tested positive in his facility.
“Not testing this most at-risk population, all of whom live in close quarters, is simply unconscionable,’’ Goetz wrote in a letter to DeSantis last week.
“We demand testing immediately, starting with those nursing homes and ALFs throughout Florida that have already been identified as having COVID-19 in their facilities and quickly expanding to everyone,’’ he said. “This is an urgent need requiring an immediate response; anything short of an immediate testing program places residents and staff in ‘immediate jeopardy.’ Telling facilities that testing will begin in another week is unacceptable. The need is immediate and response must be in proportion to the identified threat.”
DeSantis said Friday the “strike teams” have ”gone to a bunch of different nursing homes and they’ve done over 5,000 tests.” While he said the “main reason” is to find anyone who is not showing symptoms but may be carrying the virus, he stopped short of promising universal testing of all 3,800 long-term care facilities.
“We’re sending them to places that maybe have had problems in the last couple of years with infection control,’’ he said. “They haven’t had any problems yet, but we want to try to prevent that.”
DeSantis announced earlier this week that the state will double its testing capacity at hospitals and long-term care facilities by providing access to rapid tests produced by Abbott Laboratories. Hospitals which are now conducting about 9,000 tests a day, would see their capacity double. But not all hospitals have access to the rapid tests, and the governor has not suggested whether there are plans to change that.
“Those are not probably going to be produced in sufficient numbers over the next couple months to where every business is going to be able to have one of those,’’ he said Friday.
The rapid tests will focus on taking samples from long-term care facilities and community-based walk-up testing sites such as the two that opened in Broward County last week.
Hospitals have received about 1,500 rapid test kits, DeSantis said. DeSantis also announced earlier this week that more than 10 new walk-up testing sites will be standing up in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Duval, Leon and Orange counties in the coming weeks. He said 1,599 tests have been conducted at the sites in Broward since they opened.
As of Friday, 316,959 Floridians have been tested, according to the Department of Health. Health experts say the number is significantly under counted because Florida reports only the number of Floridians waiting to hear test results from state labs, not private ones — and private labs are completing more than 90% of state tests.
Although governors in other states have required the private testing labs to disclose the number of pending tests they have, DeSantis has rejected that idea. On Friday, he repeated his desire to try to “figure out ways to make it as simple and accessible as possible,” and therefore directed Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to allow the licensed pharmacists in Florida to order and administer COVID-19 tests. The authority would only last as long as the state is under the governor’s emergency order.
Earlier this year the Legislature voted to expand the roles of pharmacists when it passed HB 389, which allows pharmacists to test and treat patients for the flu and strep throat and also give them authority to treat chronic medical conditions. Seventeen other states have expanded the roles of pharmacists, who would now be able to order and interpret tests and change medication on a variety of conditions.
DeSantis’ emergency order is set to expire on April 30 and when asked if the he would extend it, DeSantis refused to answer. He is expecting to receive a recommendation next week about which businesses may be able to be part of a phased reopening.
“We’re going to do everything in a thoughtful way so if there’s no firm date, we’ve got to go to this page or that phase,” DeSantis said. “Let’s make sure we’re doing it properly. Let’s make sure that we have input from not just both the business community and the medical community but also folks in local government in different parts of the state.”
The state confirmed 526 additional cases of COVID-19 Friday, bringing the state total of confirmed cases to 30,174. The statewide death toll has jumped past 1,000, with 25 new deaths announced. The toll is now 1,012.
Fifteen of the new deaths were in South Florida, eight of which were in Miami-Dade County, according to Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard. However, COVID-19 data released in the state’s 530-page daily report lists one additional death in the county. This means the county has a death toll of 278 or 279.
Regardless, Miami-Dade continues to have the highest death toll in the state.
Despite the daily reports of additional confirmed cases and deaths, DeSantis said earlier this week that the state’s coronavirus curve had flattened.
Mary Ellen Klas reported from Tallahassee and Samantha J. Gross reported from Miami.
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