DeSantis sticks to COVID-19 approach as testing expands tentatively to general population

Gov. Ron DeSantis has adopted the Trump administration's line on alleged Chinese hoarding of protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, a staffer at Community Health of South Florida prepares to test people in the parking lot of its Doris Ison Health Center on March 18, 2020, in Miami. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis defended his middle-ground approach to COVID-19 containment Monday as he opened a testing site in The Villages where doctors will extend screening to non-symptomatic people, to gauge how the disease is spreading among the general population.

The plan is to test 2,000 people at the site this week, including between 400 and 600 people who don’t meet the criteria the state has been using, which target older Floridians and those already sick.

“If you do not meet even broad screening criteria to have your sample clinically tested, you can still elect to have your sample tested by a separate [University of Florida]-developed test for COVID. That will go into research, to be able to determine how prevalent COVID-19 is among asymptomatic individuals,” DeSantis said.

“We don’t really know that for sure. Some people think, you know, you really don’t spread it until you start to show some symptoms. Other people think, you know, people who probably don’t even know they have it are probably the ones who spreading it. This will give us the data on that,” he continued.

“That’s going to be some of the most valuable information that we can have.”

As the governor spoke during a news conference at the golf course that’s hosting the test facility, people in electric carts whizzed by from time to time behind them.

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

Unlike governors of some other states, DeSantis has eschewed broad statewide sequester-in-place rules, leaving many of those decisions to local officials, although he has closed bars, restaurants, and other public gathering places.

His approach has drawn criticism from some quarters. For example, the Miami Herald published an editorial Sunday with this headline: “Coronavirus is killing us in Florida, Gov. DeSantis. Act like you give a damn.”

DeSantis insisted some freedom of movement is consistent with the social distancing measures the state has been pursuing to prevent community transmission.

“If you look at what happened in New York, when they did the stay-at-home order, what did people do? Well, a lot of people fled the city and they’re going to stay with their parents. We’re getting huge amounts of people flying in [to Florida from New York],” the governor said.

“For every action there’s a reaction. We’re going to consider what makes sense for Florida,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, you’re going to have a group of people who are not going to comply and are going to put themselves first. The fewer number of those there are, the better off we’ll be.”

‘You need to cool it’

DeSantis pointed to people who when ordered off the beaches in South Florida congregated on a sand bar “which is technically not the beach.”

“I would say to those folk: You need to cool it and let’s get through this. Because the more stuff you’re doing, the more difficult and longer this may go.”

He pointed by efforts by the state Department of Health to undertake “sentinel testing” of the broader population to better understand the pandemic.

“You’ll hear people throw out numbers about modeling and this or that. And look: None of us really know. Some of this seems a little extreme to me. But If we could go and get some representative samples from people who may have very minimal symptoms, or even no symptoms, and see if we can detect it in the overall population … that helps our effort at mitigation,” he said.

“Some of these measures are not going to be sustainable for months and months — it’s just not going to happen.”

Similarly, DeSantis defended the decision not to close all child day care centers in the state. Even though the K-12 schools and universities have moved to distance learning at least through mid-April, day care at least provides a service to medical workers and first responders fighting the pandemic, he said.

“None of these things are easy. We’re trying to just strike the best balance. We want to create separation so people aren’t passing this disease to one another. But we’re also mindful of some of the costs that could be for just families and how they’re coping with this and how their kids are being able to be looked after.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is helping to build local laboratory capacity, for purposes of rapid diagnosis, which is key to a quick response during a disease outbreak. Credit: CDC.

DeSantis has made it his top priority to expand testing for the new coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease. The state has been operating testing centers in Jacksonville, Miami, and Orlando, with additional testing in hospitals and private labs picking up some of the demand for running the tests.

For example, a drive-through testing site in Broward County administered more than 2,000 tests during its first three days. Beyond elderly people and those with underlying health problems, the state has been offering limited testing to first responders including medical workers.

“Beta” testing for a new drive-through test site that opened in Miami Sunday screened 713 first responders on its first day, DeSantis said.

Florida has sufficient hospital beds for now, he said, but has been looking into other facilities to house patients with minor symptoms or to isolate asymptomatic people.

60,000 respirator masks

The state is doing its best amid shortages to acquire protective equipment for medical workers and soon expects delivery of nearly 60,000 respirator masks, 145,000 surgical masks, nearly 27,000 prophylactic shields, 22,000 gowns, and 78,000 surgical gloves, the governor said.

“The state of Florida is working on the largest logistics mission we’ve ever have worked on in state history — larger than any hurricane logistics mission, whether it’s Michael or Irma, by some-fold,” said Jared Moskowitz, the state’s emergency management director.

Millions of personal protective suits, respirator and surgical masks, and other equipment are on order, Moskowitz said. Officials are stockpiling ventilators in key locations and “receiving ventilators literally off the production line” from manufacturers and through the federal government. Field hospitals are being prepared, as well.

Florida’s hospitalization rate among infected people has been declining, from nearly 40 percent early on to under 20 percent, DeSantis said.

“We don’t want anyone to get it, but if you do get it we want you to be in one of those groups where you’re not going to be at risk for fatality or serious hospitalization, and that’s what a lot of our efforts are geared toward — protecting the most vulnerable.”