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Florida expands community surveillance with targeted testing of asymptomatic people


By John Haughey | The Center Square

Florida will test 800 asymptomatic people daily for coronavirus in three cities beginning next week as part of a broadening community surveillance collection effort to determine where and how COVID-19 spreads.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state’s Department of Health (DOH) would assume operations at testing sites previously supported by the federal government in Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando that had provided about 250 tests a day exclusively to health-care workers, first responders and symptomatic people 65 and older.

The community surveillance goal, the governor said, is to test about 800 asymptomatic residents each day to collect data.

“We may want to be finding some of those people and testing them,” DeSantis said.

The state’s expansion of sample testing of asymptomatic people comes as Florida braces for a projected peak in hospitalizations.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projected Friday that Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations will peak April 26.

As of Friday, the DOH webpage confirmed 705 new cases and 19 new deaths since Thursday, raising the statewide count to 17,531 and 390 deaths. More than 2,300 across the state are hospitalized.

The number of new deaths reported Friday was lower than Thursday’s fatality count of 48, the state’s highest single day tally.

DOH noted the virus has been detected in all but one of Florida's counties – Liberty County, the state’s least-populated county where only 17 tests had been administered through Thursday.

According to floridadisaster.org, the number of new COVID-19 infections has averaged 1,131 new cases per day statewide between April 2-9.

During that eight-day span, DOH reported 87,588 tests were conducted, an average of 10,944 per day, that yielded a positive infection rate of 10.3 percent. That is more than half of the 162,993 tests thus far conducted statewide.

Criteria for coronavirus testing usually requires a fever, cough, shortness of breath and close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Community surveillance collection from asymptomatic people could determine how the virus is carried by those diagnosed as positive, but who don’t display symptoms, and whether those who have not contracted the diseases despite exposure may have antibodies that could help others, DeSantis said.

The community surveillance expansion follows a “test test-run” in The Villages, home to more than 125,000 residents mostly over 65 years old, by the University of Florida of 600 people in March where no positive results were returned.

When those results were confirmed, DeSantis called it a “counterpoint” to the fear that, “This thing’s out there. Millions of people had it, don’t know it” and are unknowingly spreading the disease.

Since then, more than 70 The Villages residents have tested COVID-19 positive.

University of Florida Health announced Tuesday it also plans to test about 2,000 asymptomatic people over the next few weeks at UF Health Jacksonville beginning Monday.

UF Health and DOH are targeting Jacksonville, where, as of Friday, 609 Duval County residents have tested positive, 11 are dead and 53 hospitalized with the disease.

Among alarming trends, 47 firefighters in Jacksonville’s largest fire station are in isolation after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, meaning other stations will have to cover more ground in response to emergencies.

“So we’ll see how this community surveillance in the Jacksonville area will work,” DeSantis said. “I think that’s important because it really helps inform us in terms of what additional steps we can take.”

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