‘No. 1 priority’ for Gov. DeSantis is acquiring COVID-19 test equipment, including protective gear

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed frustration Wednesday at the difficulty state health officials are having acquiring equipment they urgently need to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly swabs to collect test samples and protective gear for medical workers.

“If you look at the last two, three weeks, this is probably the biggest rush to get medical supplies in the history of the United States. But we can’t have enough PPE right now,” DeSantis said, referring to personal protective equipment.

DeSantis said during what’s become his routine evening COVID-19 briefing at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee that he’s appealed to his political patron President Trump for assistance and “he wants to be helpful.”

However: “I’m not the only governor that’s said the exact same thing about PPE, about swabs, and about some of these other items. I think that message has been received.”

Without the ability to test widely for the coronavirus behind the COVID-19 outbreak, state leaders can’t get a firm handle on its spread in Florida. Officials do know that community spread is happening in Broward and perhaps Miami-Dade counties, the governor said.

(Here‘s a link to the Florida Phoenix’s latest report on the caseload.)

The issue is DeSantis’ “No. 1 priority.”

“We don’t have any good sense who is mildly or asymptomatic in carrying it,” he said.

“If we could just expand the testing, I think we’d be able to, one, answer a lot of questions, but then, two, the strategies that are used to prevent the spread would likely be more targeted and more effective.”

The United States got off to a slow start on its testing program (for which Trump has disclaimed responsibility).

The subsequent shortage of equipment has required state officials to focus testing on the symptomatic elderly and people suffering serious underlying conditions. Medical workers and first responders, too, DeSantis said.

In the meantime, DeSantis has emphasized social distancing to suppress community spread, including encouraging people to work from home and restaurants to offer delivery or takeout service, and ordering bars and nightclubs to close for 30 days.

He has not closed the beaches, leaving that to the discretion of local governments.

One avenue for assistance opened Wednesday when Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, which allows him to order manufacturers to switch to urgently needed medical equipment including respirators and ventilators.

However, Trump subsequently tweeted: “I only signed the Defense Production Act to combat the Chinese Virus should we need to invoke it in a worst case scenario in the future. Hopefully there will be no need, but we are all in this TOGETHER!”

DeSantis would like to have the capacity to begin “sentinel screening,” or targeted testing intended to give a picture of “how this may be under the surface in the community. That’s the No. 1 question, is how many people are carrying it that are asymptomatic. If I knew the answer to that question, that would be a very good thing to know.”

Testing has ramped up considerably since the state undertook its own program on Feb. 22, which eliminated the delays caused when the state had to send samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the governor said. State labs in Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa have conducted 1,653 tests since then. Private labs began testing during the week of March 8.

Additionally, the state expects to complete assembly of a drive-through testing facility in Broward County run by the Florida National Guard and Broward Memorial Healthcare within days. The state has 1,700 collection swabs for that operation and 800 PPE suits, the governor said. Admission will be by appointment, with the focus on the most at-risk groups.

In total, the state has assembled more than 2,000 test kits to this point, capable of conducting more than 600,000 individual tests at some 1,700 sites.

“A huge supply of swabs will let us ramp up the number of people that can be tested very, very quickly, DeSantis said. “I’ve told Jared [Moskowitz, the state’s emergency management director], ‘Do whatever you can to get the swabs.’”

The state is bracing for huge caseloads within its hospitals. Some are encouraging patients to use telemedicine. The governor suggested that people with less severe symptoms could isolate themselves at home instead of overcrowding medical wards. Hospitals have been considering reactivating unused wards.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Economic Opportunity is expanding capacity on its hotline for employment assistance and bridge loans for small businesses.

In other developments, DeSantis offered a point of clarification about three nursing home deaths in Broward County that he’d first announced on Tuesday. One of the fatalities did test positive for coronavirus, he said, but the other two did not.

And DeSantis called upon the feds to halt travel to and from Cuba. “They’re not going to be honest about what they have. They have a close relationship with China.”

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.