State opening new Palm Beach County COVID-19 test site as feds pull back involvement

In the coming days, dozens of Florida National Guardsmen will join healthcare workers and local government officials to open a new, drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Palm Beach County — a community of 1.5 million people where nearly one in four are older than 65.

And then the state is done opening new COVID-19 test sites. For now.

With the federal government pulling back on its involvement in mass-testing sites established at stadiums and convention centers across the country, and personal protection equipment for nurses, doctors and healthcare workers in short supply, Florida’s state government has no plans to establish any additional state-run testing sites at new locations, according to Jared Moskowitz, director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management.

Moskowitz told the Miami Herald that could change as the novel coronavirus outbreak evolves. But for now the state is focusing on areas where the virus is spreading in the community.

“At this moment, the state has no plans at this moment to pop up additional state sites,” Moskowitz said. “That doesn’t mean the facts on the ground can’t change.”

The decision to pause new state-run testing sites comes after the federal government informed Moskowitz that it would no longer sponsor drive-through testing sites that have led to thousands of people being tested at Hard Rock Stadium, the Orange County Convention Center and the TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. The Federal Emergency Management Agency helped set up those locations, providing enough sampling supplies and protective gear to test up to 250 senior citizens and medical professionals each day.

The shift from the state and federal governments does not mean that no new testing sites will come online in Florida: Municipalities and hospitals have teamed up to open small and large sampling locations, such as one recently established at Marlins Park. Nor does it mean the state will be on the hook for the costs of testing given that Florida can seek reimbursement after President Donald Trump declared a “major disaster” in the state.

“At this time, we are not planning to stand-up any additional [community-based testing sites] in Florida,” a Health and Human Services spokesperson said in a statement issued to the Miami Herald. “We recommend that the state, county or the private sector ... establish their own testing sites, and request supplies through the established system.”

But the change does reflect the challenge facing neighborhoods clamoring for wider availability of testing as the number of confirmed cases in Florida topped 3,000 Friday. And the announcements come as politicians and healthcare workers call on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to order a statewide lockdown and ramp up testing to prevent the spread of the virus — with some questioning his logic that there is no need to shutter counties with few confirmed cases.

“I’m hearing from experts nationally that the only way to really contain this [virus] is people need to stay home,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said Friday on the WLRN Florida Roundup.

DeSantis says he’s focusing on counties with large numbers of cases, such as Miami-Dade, which had 869 confirmed cases as of Friday night. DeSantis said during a press conference that the state would be “pushing out 1,000 swabs” soon to Miami-Dade, Broward, and Hillsborough counties, but acknowledged that supplies such as swabs and protective gear are “in short supply around the world.”

In Miami-Dade, where two large testing sites are open at sports stadiums in addition to smaller testing locations, some officials are growing frustrated as they wait for additional sites to come online in the far-flung corners of the sprawling metropolis.

“We know that testing is the single best tool to combat the virus and treat patients,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who has been pushing to open a testing site in her South Miami-Dade district. “In Miami-Dade, we must expand free testing beyond the two locations so we can triage and work to stabilize the crisis locally.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez intends to open additional testing sites as soon as possible, according to spokeswoman Myriam Marquez. A drive-through testing site at Tamiami Park that will not open up was prematurely announced Thursday night, Marquez said, but Gimenez continues to push for new sites.

“The mayor is trying to open up sites, county-run if they have to be,” Marquez said. “That’s not the issue. It’s finding the right site and having the tests.”

Local officials looking to the state for assistance Friday were told that the focus remains on Palm Beach County, where state data shows there have been fewer than 2,000 tests. DeSantis on Friday announced the coming site, which, according to Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, will likely open at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches spring training facility.

“If you look at Palm Beach’s numbers, they’ve not had nearly the amount of testing as Dade and Broward,” DeSantis said, noting that the state has tested almost 10,000 people at its sites. “It’s important to expand the testing there so we can get a better sense of what’s going on.”

The federal government’s decision not to get involved has complicated logistics. Kerner and County Administrator Verdenia Baker said they were in negotiations to nail down details of how the site would be run and funded Friday evening.

But Kerner said the lack of involvement by the federal government would not keep the county — where President Trump claims a permanent residence — from opening its first mass-testing site and serving its senior citizens.

“I’m not surprised that FEMA’s over-stretched at this point,” he said. “I’m not really going to rely on federal help at this point because this is a nationwide pandemic.”