Florida secures 1 million at-home COVID tests, will send them to senior facilities first

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in West Palm Beach (WJXT)

A day after promising the state would soon send at-home rapid coronavirus tests to Florida’s seniors and those who are high-risk, Gov. Ron DeSantis joined with state emergency management and health leaders Thursday in West Palm Beach to provide details on the distribution.

Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said the state has secured nearly 1 million at-home tests and will be sending them out, starting Thursday, to the thousands of nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state. He said they would begin receiving the tests Sunday and will be able to request more as they need them.

DeSantis said once the state’s assisted living facilities are taken care of, tests can be sent to “senior heavy communities.”

“It’s not really to just test to test but someone develops a symptom, you go in, you have an at-home test, you can get a result and then proceed to treatment and that’s something that’s really good,” DeSantis said. “Clearly when you’re talking about long-term care facilities, you’re talking about senior communities. Those are the demographics that are going to be more likely to take a positive test and then parlay that into treatment, which we do support and want to get very quickly. So that will make a difference.”

DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo again repeated their recommendation that only those with symptoms should be tested and those who are “young and healthy” don’t need to be “running out and getting tested every day.”

“The people who the testing is going to be very high value for, you know, that’s where we really want to see the access to and so we are doing that,” DeSantis said.

The governor said the number of people who end up on ventilators due to the omicron variant is much lower than during the summer surge of the delta variant. He said the most severely ill patients in hospitals still tend to be suffering from the delta variant.

On Wednesday, the state reported nearly 60,000 new cases of COVID-19 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last week, Florida broke several records for the number of cases reported in a single day since the pandemic began in March 2020, reaching nearly 76,000 new cases on New Year’s Eve.

President Joe Biden announced last month that the federal government is buying half a billion COVID-19 rapid test kits and distributing them free of charge to people to use at home. The first delivery is expected in early January, but all 500 million kits will not arrive at the same time and instead will be delivered in batches.

DeSantis again criticized the federal government for not yet following through on that promise as the omicron variant spreads to millions across the country.

“I don’t know if there’s any prospect of the federal government following through on what it said it was going to do,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think they have the contracts done for this and to have promised people could go online and order -- that’s a very tall thing logistically.”

The state’s distribution of at-home tests for seniors comes as Walmart and Kroger reportedly raised the price of Abbott’s at-home COVID-19 test kit after an agreement with the White House to sell the tests at a reduced price expired. The BinaxNOW kit was listed on Walmart’s website Tuesday for $19.88, up from $14 last month, though many of the stores in the Jacksonville area were sold out on Wednesday as demand has skyrocketed.

The state also released updated testing guidelines Thursday that suggest those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 but have no symptoms should not bother getting tested.

The guidelines from the Florida Department of Health were criticized by public health officials who recommend anyone with close contact with a case and those who aren’t fully vaccinated get tested.

After refuting claims from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried that the Florida health department was in possession of stockpiled COVID-19 tests that were about to expire, state leaders Thursday admitted that they were requesting a waiver for stockpiled tests to see if they might still be safe and effective to use.

Fried, a Democrat running against DeSantis for governor, released a statement that read, in part:

“It’s bad enough that Governor DeSantis has deprioritized testing with omicron exploding across Florida, but it’s an absolute disgrace for the Governor and his communications team to have lied and covered up the massive failure of a million unused tests while Floridians wait in hours-long lines for local tests that are running out. Now the Governor has to beg President Biden for another waiver to even use these expired tests -- should they still be safe and effective.”

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.