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

Liz Freeman Frank Gluck
Naples Daily News

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Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said Tuesday they don't want Floridians who aren't showing COVID-19 symptoms to get tested and that they are overwhelming already overcrowded test sites.

“If you don’t have symptoms, you are not a case," Ladapo said at an afternoon news conference in Naples.

The state's new testing guidelines are in direct opposition to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say people without symptoms can spread the omicron variant and that testing is critical in preventing more infections.

Symptomatic or not?:Should you bother getting a COVID-19 test?

Florida COVID testing:Public health experts say state heading in wrong direction on r omicron

Ladapo criticized policies that emphasize people test frequently. “We are trying to focus on high-value testing,” on those who are at high risk, like the elderly, and people with symptoms, he said.

Ladapo described the state's 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."

Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo speaks during a press conference, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, at the Florida Department of Health-Collier County in Naples, Fla.

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.

Opposition to Florida's new policy was swift.

Dr. Frederick Southwick, an infectious diseases specialist in Gainesville and a member of the Committee to Protect Health Care, said in an email, "Reduced testing will serve to underestimate the severity of the present surge and give Floridians a false sense of security. Masks, avoiding public spaces and most important vaccination are the way to reduce fear and reduce cases. Stopping testing is a way to game the system and hide the severe consequences of the Governor’s and legislature’s laws prohibiting the mandating of masks and vaccines. The consequences of those decisions are now being revealed."

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, tweeted: “Florida Surgeon General says we need to stop testing and get back to our lives. In fact, with ubiquitous testing, we can keep infections low and safely get back to our lives.”

Epidemiologist Michael Mina, a staunch supporter of testing who was an assistant professor of Harvard School of Public Health, tweeted after DeSantis' Monday news conference in Broward County: "WHAT!??! FL Surgeon Gen standing in front of an 'EARLY Treatment Saves Live' podium saying we need to stop testing. EARLY treatment is only possible if we test and diagnose early. Else our treatments are useless. A test is not some conspiracy - it is how we see the virus!"

And state Rep. Carlos G. Smith, a Democrat from Orlando, urged DeSantis in a tweet Monday to again open state-run testing sites to help expand testing capacity.

“There is NOT a shortage of COVID-19 testing supply in Florida. There IS a shortage of leadership. Less testing + less prevention is NOT the answer.”

Previous coverage:

DeSantis calls for monoclonal treatments

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.

Arrest in Jacksonville:Gov. Ron DeSantis moves Jacksonville news conference after protest and handcuffing of community leader

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.

In a Tuesday evening news release, DeSantis said, “After pressure from Florida, the federal government has begun planning to send 30,000 additional doses to our state, so we can stand up new sites and expand capacity at existing sites."

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.

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, at the Florida Department of Health-Collier County in Naples, Fla.

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.

He said he intends to make at-home tests more readily available because the federal government has failed to provide them, but he offered no information on how he would get or distribute them. There continues to be long lines at testing centers throughout the state, and many pharmacies are reporting they don't have the at-home tests 

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.

Related:SWFL hospitals have no monoclonal treatments that work on omicron variant

Cases double:Collier's weekly COVID-19 cases more than double as infections surge throughout Florida

By the way:DeSantis has prioritized for the 2022 Florida legislative Session

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."

All about Ben Frazier:Jacksonville activist Ben Frazier, arrested ahead of Gov. DeSantis' press conference: Who is he?

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.

Reporters Dan Scanlan of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and Mike Stucka of the USA TODAY Network contributed to this article.