State COVID-19 pending test numbers lag behind reality

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While the Florida Department of Health is issuing daily updates on the number of tests and positive cases of COVID-19, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. 

That’s because a large portion of private hospital data is missing. 

For example, as of Sunday Santa Rosa and Escambia counties were listed as having four combined pending cases according to the health department. But last week Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital’s drive-through testing site collected at least 674 nasal swabs in four days said Mike Burke, marketing and communications manager for the hospital. 

“Those nasal samples have been sent to outside labs, and we expect results to start coming back early next week,” Burke said in an email March 19. 

That means at least 674 pending tests from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties not listed.

Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged this data discrepancy during a press conference in Miami Sunday, March 22. 

According to state figures, there were more than 900 tests pending at the time across the state. But that is only for the department of health tests. 

“Understand that there are so many of these tests being sent to the commercial labs. At the state we don’t have visibility on what is being sent to the labs,” DeSantis said. 

The state is required to be notified once a test comes back positive or negative, he said, but until that time, state officials don’t have that data. 

While more testing means better understanding of COVID-19’s spread, lack of knowledge of pending cases could mean a blind spot of at least a week for the state. Ascension’s testing takes up to a week to provide answers, and sudden spikes in those infected, revealed by a spike in testing, would not be made known to the state until the tests are ruled positive a week later. 

As the number of cases continues to rise, questions have been raised about the state’s health care system’s ability to respond. DeSantis said as of Sunday morning, roughly a third of Florida’s hospitals had at least 50% of their capacity available. 

Statewide that translates to more than 18,000 available beds and about 1,700 ICU beds for the most critical patients, such as those that would require breathing support due to COVID-19’s respiratory impacts.

Currently, vacant health care facilities are also being considered for future use if needed DeSantis said, and the governor also discussed potentially using stadiums and hotels to quarantine patients if needed.   

“Our department of emergency management also has some facilities that could be put up,” DeSantis said. 

But with a population of more than 21 million, Florida’s best chance for responding to COVID-19 is to stop the spread. 

“We’ve got to do our part to stop the spread of the virus so we don’t end up overwhelming our healthcare system,” DeSantis said.

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