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Florida's surgeon general hints at a shift to 'high-value' COVID-19 testing as demand surges

 Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo acknowledged the rapid rise in cases but said omicron symptoms are generally less severe than previous variants.
Gov. Ron DeSantis
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Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo acknowledged the rapid rise in cases but said omicron symptoms are generally less severe than previous variants.

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, Florida’s surgeon general on Monday indicated the state Department of Health would issue guidance that would “unwind the testing psychology” of the federal government.

Comments by Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis taking aim at mass testing came after President Joe Biden’s administration last month announced a plan to distribute 500 million at-home coronavirus tests to Americans.

“We need to unwind this … planning and living one’s life around testing,” Ladapo said during a news conference at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. “Without it, we’re going to be sort of stuck in the same cycle. So, it’s really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity. And to unwind this sort of preoccupation with only COVID as determining the boundaries and constraints and possibilities of life.”

DeSantis also pointed to what he characterized as frivolous testing for COVID-19.

“What you are seeing is there are people going to the drug stores, buying all these tests. They’ll go multiple times per week to the sites and test, without symptoms. That is just going to contribute to some of the crunch that you are seeing,” DeSantis said.

The state health department published a report on Friday that showed 298,455 new coronavirus cases were recorded in the week that ended Dec. 30. The total more than doubled from the previous week, when the health department reported 128,186 cases.

The number of Florida hospital patients with COVID-19 also has more than doubled during the past week, according to data posted Monday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency reported that 5,700 inpatients had COVID-19, up from 2,406 a week earlier.

Ladapo acknowledged the rapid rise in cases but said omicron symptoms are generally less severe than previous variants.

“Everyone knows omicron is spreading extremely rapidly,” Ladapo said. “The good news is that it appears to be less virulent, and the hospitalizations are not increasing nearly at the rate that the cases (are) … it’s not close. There’s a very big difference between the change in cases and the change in hospitalizations.”

Ladapo said the upcoming shift in the approach to testing would put an emphasis on higher-risk people, though he did not give specifics of the plan. He suggested that the new guidance “doesn’t restrict access to testing, but reduces the use of low-value testing and prioritizes high-value testing.”

“So, if your grandmother gets a test, that’s a much more valuable test than the 8-year-old third-graders that Los Angeles County (Calif.) is sending in to get weekly testing. The first one is much more likely to change outcomes,” Ladapo said.

Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller also said the state’s “seniors-first strategy still exists,” reinforcing DeSantis’ plan to prioritize the elderly population in addressing the virus. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions are far more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 than other people.

The governor said symptoms of the omicron variant being less severe should encourage younger Floridians to conserve COVID-19 treatments, such as monoclonal antibody treatment, for seniors.

“It’s basically cold-like symptoms for a lot of those folks. That is not something you need to be coming in and getting monoclonals for. So, let’s look at our elderly population. Let’s look at folks that are immunocompromised or maybe things like diabetes that have shown to be a real serious risk factor,” DeSantis said.

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Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida