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Coronavirus Florida: State to begin antibody testing, outlines new nursing home restrictions

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

SARASOTA COUNTY — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that antibody testing soon will be available at state drive-thru testing sites and hospitals to find out whether people have had the coronavirus but didn’t know it.

“Antibody testing is finally here,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Sarasota County.

The tests would be available at drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites scattered across the state. Antibody tests also will go to hospitals, where there is a need to learn if health care workers have developed a resistance to COVID-19, DeSantis said.

Antibody tests detect signs in the blood that a person has been exposed to the coronavirus. This is viewed as important, since studies show that many carriers of the virus show no symptoms at all.

The Food and Drug Administration said this month that “the question of when we can return to work and resume our normal activities is one of the most critical issues facing our nation. Antibody tests — known as serologolical tests — may have the potential to play a role in this complex calculation.”

It isn’t perfect, however, experts acknowledge. Antibodies can take a week to 14 days to develop, and levels vary, so a lack of antibodies in a test does not necessarily mean someone was not exposed to the virus.

It is not known if people who have had the coronavirus are immune, according the Centers for Disease Control.

See our complete coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

“The vast majority of (COVID-19) cases either appear to be asymptomatic or symptoms appear to be so minor you wouldn’t necessarily think to get medical attention,” DeSantis said.

The program would start with 200,000 antibody tests. More details will be released later this week.

The Florida Health Department reported another 542 cases of the coronavirus Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 37,439 to date. Another 72 people died in Florida from the illness, bringing the toll to 1,471. Manatee County had 684 cases and two more deaths, for a total of 61. Sarasota County had 395 cases and 48 deaths.

DeSantis also announced that all drive-thru testing sites will ramp up the ability to test 750 people a day. The Mall at the University Town Center in Sarasota County, the site of DeSantis’ press conference, opened on Sunday and has performed more than 900 tests in two days.

The governor has been touting the state’s increased testing ability and said that on Monday, the 23,884 tests conducted marked the biggest one-day total since the state began its battle with COVID-19. In addition, with 589 new cases reported Monday, that marked a 2.6% positive rate, a sharp drop from recent days hovering around 5%.

But with the state averaging just under 15,000 tests daily for the previous two weeks, Florida is still well short of what epidemiologists say should be the state’s goal.

The recommended testing of 150 people daily for every 100,000 residents means that about 31,800 Floridians should be getting tested each day to better contain the virus.

DeSantis, a protégé of President Donald Trump, used the improving testing results as a weapon against the media. “I wonder whether people will say as Florida enters into Phase One (of reopening), percentage positive tests plunge to record low. I don’t think they’ll write that headline, because it’s not going to generate the type of clicks,” DeSantis said, adding that Florida’s phased-in reopening is being done “judiciously.”

Rules for nursing homes

DeSantis also outlined a new emergency rule that residents can’t be discharged from a hospital to a nursing home without first being tested and showing a negative result.

Other states have allowed people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to be admitted to nursing homes, something DeSantis said “has not been a good standard of practice.”

Florida hospitals have not sent patients back to nursing homes who came in with the coronavirus unless they have two negative tests, DeSantis said.

The new rule expands a policy for patients who didn’t arrive at the hospital with the coronavirus; that person would require a negative test to get discharged to a long-term care facility.

Sending an asymptomatic person back to a nursing home is too risky, DeSantis said. That’s because the person could have COVID-19 and not know it.

Older people, especially with other medical issues, are most vulnerable.

People 85 and older accounted for 5% of the state’s documented positive coronavirus cases, and 30% of the fatalities, DeSantis said. People ages 75 to 84 were 8% of the positive test results and another 30% of the fatalities.

Sarasota and Manatee counties have three elder care communities that are among the Top 10 in Florida for the most COVID-19 deaths in such facilities.

“Long-term care facilities didn’t get off at the quickest speed, but we are grateful that things are ramping up,” said Manatee County Chairwoman Besty Benac, who attended the press conference.

On Wednesday, the state will announce the rollout of a mobile lab that offers coronavirus testing with results in 45 minutes. It will travel the state and be used at long-term care facilities.

Hurricanes

The pandemic is also expected to blend into the start of hurricane season on June 1. That could complicate matters.

COVID-19 could possibly make changes to congregant sheltering and evacuation plans, said Jared Moskowitz, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

DeSantis said, “The No. 1 venue (of COVID transmission) has been inside the home among family members. When looking at sheltering for hurricanes, we need to keep that in mind.”

USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau reporter John Kennedy contributed to this report.