As second month of reopening begins, Florida coronavirus testing still falls short
TALLAHASSEE – With Florida moving into its second month of an economic reopening, state testing for the coronavirus remains far below levels public health experts say is needed to contain spread of the virus heading into the critical summer season.
With beaches getting more crowded, backyard barbecues increasingly taking place and back-to-school planning being pondered, Gov. Ron DeSantis is acknowledging that many of Florida’s hastily established testing sites aren’t drawing sufficient people.
“What we’re finding is that we have the capacity to do at least 10,000 tests a day, just from the drive-thru sites,” DeSantis said Friday in Boca Raton. “But yet we typically only have demand for about half that much.”
Florida just topped 1 million tests administered for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. And while over the past two weeks, the state reported its largest number of testing results, the increase still leaves Florida short of what epidemiologists say is the volume needed.
Florida averaged 29,952 daily tests the past two weeks, a rate helped by four days where results spiked – reaching almost 78,000 one day, and more than 53,000, 41,000 and 33,000 on others.
But epidemiologists say testing 150 people for every 100,000 residents is needed to gain the kind of data needed to help contain the virus spread, meaning Florida should be reporting tests from 31,800 people per day.
That level has been reached in the state only on those four days which fell between May 18-24.
Until those big result days, Florida had typically struggled to hit 20,000 daily tests.
“We’re still not quite where we need to be,” said Dr. Charles Lockwood, senior vice president of University of South Florida Health and dean of its medical school. “We’re doing OK. Certainly the number of tests is important, but maybe more importantly is the test negative rate.”
Of the 1,041,318 people tested in Florida by Monday, 5.5% reported positive for coronavirus. But since the beginning of May, that number has declined most days to below 5%, meaning as Lockwood points out, there is an increasingly higher rate of negative results.
Florida reported 667 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, bringing the state’s cumulative total to 56,830. Another nine deaths brought to 2,460 the fatalities caused by the disease.
The 26,700 tests reported to the state included 5% positive for the virus.
Lockwood said that increased testing – and results showing that the prevalence of coronavirus is heading toward zero – is what’s needed to assure Floridians that it’s safe to return to restaurants, most retail stores or get haircuts or manicures, businesses that DeSantis allowed to open their doors in the past month.
Otherwise, Lockwood warned the economy will continue to stagnate.
“If you know that 99% of people in Publix are negative for the virus, that’s going to make you think a little more favorably about going than if you know that only 95% are negative and 5% might have the virus,” he said.
Florida has established 15 drive-thru and 16 walk-up test sites, mostly in urban centers, with more planned. More than 230,000 people have been tested at these sites.
Home Depot and Publix announced last week they were providing test sites at some stores in Florida, joining Walgreens, CVS and Walmart among the retail outlets where testing is available.
“As we got to reopening, we started to see a decline in people coming to these testing sites,” said Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz. “And so, as we’re getting back to regular life, we want testing to be more accessible.”
He added, “If you’re out back in society, out shopping and you just want to get a test, you want to know for sure, we want to make it convenient,” he added.
Lockwood, though, said, “I’m worried about fatigue,” with people disinterested in getting tested.
Still, with school reopening on the horizon, he said it’s important that the state require that students, teachers and staff undergo tests, with negative results, before being allowed back into classrooms from kindergarten through college.
DeSantis hasn’t directly spoken about imposing such requirements.
Similarly, the governor and state public health officials have not outlined any ideas for a public information campaign – TV ads and the like – emphasizing the importance of testing and subsequent contact tracing, where those who associated with someone with the virus can be identified and urged to self-isolate for two weeks to reduce spread of the disease.
“The mobility of the population is going up in Florida,” since the May 1 phased-in reopening, said Ira Longini, a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the University of Florida. “We’re probably halfway between the way we were before the lockdown and during the lockdown, when we weren’t that mobile.”
Only about 1.6% of the Florida population has been infected so far, he added. But Longini said his view of contact tracing in Florida is “pretty spotty right now.”
“That means we have a lot of uninfected people, but we have a very large, susceptible population,” Longini said. “I’d be quite worried about where the state is headed at this point.”