DeSantis urges healthy, asymptomatic Floridians to forgo COVID-19 testing even as omicron case count skyrockets

By Liz Freeman and Frank Gluck, Naples Daily News, Jan 4, 2022.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that Floridians who have not been credibly exposed to COVID-19 and have no symptoms don’t need to get tested and are overwhelming already overcrowded test sites.

DeSantis, joined by Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller, announced the new testing guidelines at an afternoon news conference in Naples.

Ladapo described the thinking this way: “It’s not about restricting access to testing, it’s about de-programming or de-normalizing this idea that you can’t go anywhere unless you get tested,” he said. “If you have no symptoms, please don’t get tested. You’re so unlikely to benefit from that, and you could be harmed.”

Ladapo and DeSantis used the example of seemingly healthy schoolchildren who have been exposed but are otherwise asymptomatic. Those children, they said, are being unnecessarily harmed by keeping them away from the classroom and their peers — as well as disrupting family life.

“We are trying to focus on high-value testing,” on those who are at high risk, like the elderly, and people with symptoms, Ladapo said. He criticized policies that emphasize people test frequently. “If you don’t have symptoms, you are not a case.”

In contrast, recommendations from other public health agencies, including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state that people without symptoms can spread the omicron variant and that testing is critical in preventing more infections.

The governor also called on the federal government to give Florida a large supply of monoclonal antibody treatment, something which earlier in the day he had told media in Jacksonville after a scheduled news conference there was delayed by protesters. One person was arrested.

He criticized the federal government for how it allocates the supply of the treatment and said Florida is not getting its fair share. The state has been allocated 12,000 doses when it recently asked for 40,000 doses.

“That is woefully inadequate for what we need,” DeSantis said.

He reiterated his position that Florida’s policies of not doing lockdowns, of treating seniors first and making monoclonals available have brought more people to the state, while the federal government’s approach of vaccinations and mandates has failed.

“They put all their eggs in one basket and have not been willing to pivot,” DeSantis said.

The governor this week has renewed his push for more availability of monoclonal antibody treatment against COVID-19 and says the federal government needs to release its “stranglehold” of the supply or allow states to purchase it directly.

The federal government had announced it was halting the distribution of the treatment made by Regeneron and Eli Lilly to states but reversed course after receiving a letter from Ladapo, according to the governor’s office. The federal government is allowing states to continue ordering supply.

But DeSantis, a staunch critic of the president, says Florida needs at least 30,000 more doses a week than what it is receiving. The state plans to open new sites to treat 250 to 300 patients a day at each site.

The governor said the state is ready to open new monoclonal testing sites, including in Collier County, if the federal government provides more stock, and it intends to make at-home tests more readily available, which the federal government has failed to provide.

“They have not delivered anything, so we will fill the gap,” DeSantis said.

The antibodies are made in a laboratory and are given by infusion at state-run sites and can be effective against serious illness and can help people recover faster.

Last summer and fall when the delta variant of COVID-19 was hitting the state hard, the state Division of Emergency Management opened 25 monoclonal antibody sites around Florida, including locations in Bonita Springs and Immokalee.

The Immokalee site was shut down in late September after it saw a slowdown in people coming for the therapy. The Bonita Springs location remains open by appointment only, Betsy Clayton, spokeswoman for Lee County government, said Tuesday.

Florida ranked fourth among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest on a per-person basis, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. In the latest week, coronavirus cases in the United States increased 104% from the week before, with 2,833,203 cases reported. With 6.45% of the country’s population, Florida had 10.67% of the country’s cases in the last week. Across the country, 49 states had more cases in the latest week than they did in the week before.

According to the CDC, 95.4% of all new cases are attributed to the omicron variant.

The state has surpassed 4.1 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in March 2020. The state Department of Health on Friday reported 298,455 new cases in the last week.

One arrested at DeSantis news conference in Jacksonville

In Jacksonville, the governor’s morning news conference was delayed after five people demanded to speak with him in the Duval County Department of Health room where it was set to be held. But state staff said they could not be there as reporters watched.

“It’s a state building, but it’s not open to the public, not every room in here,” facility manager Johnny Lance told the protesters. “There’s private business in some areas and I am asking everyone who is not media to leave the room.”

If they did not leave, the protesters were told them would be charged with trespassing, he said. Then members of the governor’s staff tried to set up a later meeting with protesters, but they refused to leave.

One protester, Northside Coalition of Jacksonville community leader Ben Frazier, then decried DeSantis’ stance on COVID-19 measures, saying he had been “asleep at the wheel” in recent weeks as the numbers of people infected and hospitalized had risen.

“We come in peace,” Frazier told officials asking him to leave. “This governor does not care. He wants to run away and duck his tail between his legs. Why? He does not want to deal with the people.”

Police officers were called in. Frazier was put in handcuffs and escorted out, his motorized wheelchair brought behind him by officers. Taken to a police cruiser, he demanded to know if he was being arrested and on what charge as protesters yelled “Shame, shame.” He received a notice to appear later before a judge on a charge of trespass with warning, and was released before noon, the sheriff’s office said.

The news briefing was moved to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement building nearby, where DeSantis said he had “no idea” what happened at the protest at the original site.

Local lawmakers decried what happened to Frazier. Rep. Angie Nixon (D- Jacksonville) said what happened to him was shameful, adding that the people come last in Florida and that DeSantis is “the enemy of the people.”

“The Governor runs and hides when the people demand to be a priority,” she wrote in a statement. “In Florida, peacefully questioning authority gets you arrested. Public service is the people’s business and the Governor must answer for his failings.”

The leader-designate of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Ramon Alexander of Tallahassee, said the hypocrisy of the “Free State of Florida” was on full display in Jacksonville.

“It’s only free if you agree with him, and you can only attend his events if you are a cheerleader for his political ambitions,” Alexander wrote. “You’re free to catch the virus in Florida, but don’t you dare question the Governor’s policies.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat on the Florida Cabinet and a candidate for governor, called what happened to Frazier and the protesters “extremely disturbing events.” She said Frazier was taken away simply for wanting to speak to DeSantis about public health policies.

“The Governor should be ashamed,” she wrote.

The Jacksonville news conference was DeSantis’ second of the New Year, after the omicron variant surged across Florida in recent weeks. In Monday’s Broward Health Medical Center appearance, he was critical of vaccines while pushing for more monoclonal treatments, saying they are not preventing infection from the latest omicron variant. And he repeated that at Tuesday’s news conference.

“We are not seeing vaccinations stop the spread of omicron; in fact, probably higher incidences in higher vaccinated areas like Miami-Dade than in areas that have less for whatever reason,” he said Tuesday. “That’s just the reality, so folks can just understand. It is very contagious.”

But since the beginning of nationwide vaccine rollouts, doctors and scientists have emphasized that although the virus can infect inoculated people, they offer the best protection against severe illness and death, even for those who catch the heavily mutated omicron variant. Those with booster shots are the most protected, authorities say.

DeSantis’ last public appearance was Dec. 17 to tell the public his administration’s plan to fight the virus. In the week leading up to that day, Florida added an average of about 5,300 new infections. In the past seven days, the number of new infections have skyrocketed to nearly 52,000, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.

Editor: in response to Ladapo’s and DeSantis’ inappropriate response to the Omicron variant and the epidemic of cases, The Daily Sun published the following editorial:

OUR POSITION: There are just not enough testing sites available to serve people who fear they may have contracted the omicron virus but our governor says don’t worry about it.

Feeling a little fatigued. Coughing? Maybe you feel you have a fever. Perhaps, you’re thinking, you better get tested so you don’t pass the omicron COVID virus along to your co-workers or family.

Get in line.

Omicron is sweeping the nation and people are having a difficult time finding a place to get tested. In some states, they are running out of tests. In Florida we’re not sure what the situation is, but we know there are more people who want a test than are getting one, and getting the results quickly, is not easy.

But Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his hand-picked surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo said, in so many words, testing is overrated. Both men spoke during a visit to Fort Lauderdale.

“We need to unwind this … planning and living one’s life around testing,” Ladapo said, according to a News Service of Florida story. “Without it, we’re going to be sort of stuck in the same cycle. So, it’s really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity.”

DeSantis also said people are worrying too much about testing.

“What you are seeing is there are people going to the drug stores, buying all these tests. They’ll go multiple times per week to the sites and test, without symptoms. That is just going to contribute to some of the crunch that you are seeing,” DeSantis said of the shortage of tests.

The state health department said Friday that 298,455 new coronavirus cases were recorded in the week that ended Dec. 30. The total more than doubled from the previous week.

Secretary of Agriculture Nikki Fried claimed a week or so ago that Florida has “a significant number” of COVID-19 tests stockpiled “that are set to expire imminently.”

Fried, who is running against DeSantis this year, accuses the governor of keeping information about those tests secret. She said “given the governor’s lack of transparency throughout the pandemic, there’s no known public information about these tests or how soon they expire.”

The governor has not addressed Fried’s accusations.

DeSantis did say Monday and said he has asked the federal government to send between 30,000 and 40,000 more doses of monoclonal antibody treatments to Florida. That is used to treat people, especially the most vulnerable, who already have COVID. DeSantis said he wants to focus on the older population for an omicron virus that Ladapo said is not as serious as the previous variants.

Locally, we may be better off than some places where test sites and test supplies are strained.

You can still get a test at Mid-County Library in Port Charlotte, 2050 Forrest Nelson Blvd., for no cost. However, quick results are not available and PCR results are taking several days at the Mid-County Library site. For those seeking results in an hour, Curative staff at Forrest Nelson are sending rapid test seekers to the sister Curative site in Fort Myers, 4761 S. Cleveland Ave., which offers the rapid test only, according to a Daily Sun story by Betsy Calvert.

In Sarasota County you can get tested at the Sarasota Kennel Club property, 5400 Bradenton Road and at Ed Smith Stadium, 2700 12th St. from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. In North Port, Dallas White Park is offering tests from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily.

 Image Credits: Lawrence Mower