JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the federal government scales back its coronavirus testing operations in Florida, the state is stepping in to fill that void including in Jacksonville.
With the Lot J site under state control, testing operations will expand to screen certain individuals without symptoms and others who did not meet criteria set by the federal government, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Friday visit.
“Anybody that’s had close, sustained contact with an individual that has recently tested positive for COVID-19, they can get tested even if you personally may not have developed symptoms,” DeSantis said. “I think what we’re trying to do is get a sense of people that are a Symptomatic who may be carrying the virus and maybe spreading the virus."
Starting on Monday, the Florida National Guard will begin handling testing at the site. Mayor Lenny Curry said the idea is to relieve the city’s first responders and free them up to resume their regular duties.
“They will begin running shifts that will allow our first responders, Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department and police officers and some of those, to get back to some of the stuff to caring for people in our community outside of this site every day,” Curry said.
The mayor said the goal moving forward is to test 400 people a day at Lot J.
Anyone who’s had close contact with a known coronavirus patient can now get tested at the site, even if they’re not showing any visible symptoms of the virus, which include coughing, fever and difficulty breathing. In addition, health care workers at assisted-living facilities can get tested there now.
Though the site was originally open only to first responders, people ages 65 and older and those with a fever, the site has since lifted requirements on people’s ages and temperatures.
DeSantis said the federal government planned to cease its operations at Lot J, as well as similar sites in Orlando and Miami, on Friday. He and the mayor agreed that they could not allow testing at the site to shut down.
“When I learned that this testing site was going to potentially shut down, obviously it was incredibly concerning,” Curry said. “The governor called me two nights ago and said, ‘If you want to keep this going, we’re in.’"
DeSantis said it is important to relax the criteria for testing to reach more people. He said the state is trying to acquire antibody tests because of the belief that many in the population are carrying the virus without realizing it.
“There are probably a lot of people who have never even sought medical care who may have had this virus, because they just didn’t develop severe symptoms or maybe they didn’t develop symptoms at all,” the governor said.
The governor said the state is continuing to distribute rapid test machines from Abbott Laboratories, and he said the state is working to identify hospitals that require them.
“Here in Jacksonville they sent it to St. Vincent’s, but we’re looking to get that available to all hospitals throughout the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
State hospital capacity remains good with 44 percent of beds available and 40 percent of intensive care unit beds open, the governor said. He said Duval County has 45-percent bed availability with 48 percent of ICU beds available.
Despite that, the state has several field hospitals on standby in case of a surge, including the Prime Osborn Center in Jacksonville, said Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
“While the data is looking good, now is not the time to stop social distancing, now is not the time to stop listening and following that CDC guidance,” Moskowitz said. “While things are looking better, they’re looking better because we’re doing all of the measures that the governor has instituted, and so let’s continue to do that.”
Lot J will be open for testing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, or until 400 tests are administered. But the site will not be open for testing on Easter Sunday.