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Florida Drops COVID-19 Testing Company, Understanding Herd Immunity And Rental Assistance During Pandemic

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Florida ends its contract with Quest Diagnostics after a technical error led to nearly 75,000 test results being withheld from the state. Plus, we explore "herd immunity" and whether it could happen in Florida. Finally, rental assistance for those in need in Broward County and the Florida Keys.

On this Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 episode of Sundial.

Florida Drops Major COVID-19 Testing Company

Florida has cut ties with the medical lab, Quest Diagnostics after it reported a backlog of nearly 75,000 coronavirus test results that date all the way back to April. Quest is one of the largest COVID-19 testing labs in the country and accounted for 22 percent of all the tests conducted in Florida.

State health officials say the delayed tests did not drastically distort the extent of the pandemic, but this proves errors in the number of cases that the state has been reporting.

“It raises to me some questions about how reliable and trustworthy the data is that the state is providing us,” said Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief. “It’s not just reporters that are raising these questions. Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber was outraged when he learned that this reporting had been withheld and he’s blaming it on the state and federal government in what he called an incompetent testing program.”

We spoke with Klas about how the numbers collected by the state have been used to justify further reopening and how the state will fill the gap in testing left by Quest.

Understanding Herd Immunity

Florida is seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases, infections and hospitalizations. The hard-hit areas of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are easing restrictions as their own coronavirus numbers continue to improve.

Miami-Dade County started allowing restaurants to reopen indoor dining beginning on Monday at 50 percent capacity and Palm Beach County is looking to move to phase two of their reopening starting next week.

As more businesses reopen, there are concerns there will be an uptick in community spread of the virus as happened in Florida over the course of the summer. Dr. Scott Atlas is a coronavirus adviser for the White House who spoke alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis in Tallahassee earlier this week.

Atlas has previously advocated for the idea that the United States should adopt a "herd immunity" model, similar to Sweden, where a large enough percentage of the population gets infected by the virus to build a resistance to it.

That proposal troubles Dr. Anthony Harris, Medical Director and Chief Innovation Officer at WorkCare, a national employee health company.

“We have our first confirmed re-infection case out of Hong Kong. Now that the notion of re-infection has been observed objectively determined by the genetic breakdown of the virus, all the herd immunity goes out the window,” said Dr. Harris on Sundial. “Just because you’ve had it before, doesn’t mean you can’t get it again in a different strain. Herd immunity becomes a pipe dream.”

Dr. Harris knows the dangers of the virus all too well. His niece, nephew and sister — who all live in Florida — have gotten sick but fortunately recovered from the virus. We spoke with Dr. Harris about the issues with the “herd immunity” strategy and the process of reopening as he’s consulted with a number of South Florida businesses about their plans.

Rental Assistance During Pandemic

More than one million Floridians remain out of work and hundreds of thousands more are experiencing furloughs and reduced salaries. Many have been behind on their rent and mortgage payments since shutdowns began in March.

They’ll be getting some temporary relief as Gov. DeSantis has extended the moratorium on evictions for the month of September.

And on the federal level, the Trump Administration enacted an executive order through the Centers for Disease Control preventing evictions for people who’ve lost work due to the pandemic.

However, courts are continuing to move forward in the eviction process. And the rent and mortgage payments will be due in full to landlords and banks once the moratorium expires.

The need for rental and utility assistance is high in South Florida. Stephanie Kaple is the executive director of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition.

“We are actually going through our rental assistance funding faster than we did after Hurricane Irma,” she told Luis Hernandez on Sundial. “We are definitely seeing more families in need and families typically that would never need this. We are hearing from families that have exhausted their savings. We had a shutdown from mid-March to June 1st to tourists, so people were out of work from that or they haven’t been called back to work.”

The coalition does have limited grants available to families to assist in rental assistance and utilities. In Broward County, we heard from Natalie Moffitt Beasley, the assistant director of Family Success Administration. There’s $25 million in rental assistance funding from the CARES Act available to landlords and tenants.

Those who can prove their work was adversely impacted by the pandemic can qualify for 75 percent of their rent covered for the months of March and April and 60 percent of their rent covered for May through August.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.