Florida officials admitted on Thursday that they had up to a million coronavirus test kits stored in a warehouse that expired just before New Year’s Eve. The statement comes as Florida continues to be among those hardest hit by COVID-19, with some residents saying they are “desperate” to find tests.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor, first accused current Governor Ron DeSantis of stockpiling tests on December 30, saying that the Department of Health had a “significant number” of tests set to expire.
“With Omicron infections exploding throughout Florida, I beg of him to release these tests immediately to local counties and cities, and to stand up state-sponsored testing sites,” Fried had said. “To let these tests expire while Floridians anxiously wait for hours in testing lines is negligent at best, and heartless at worst.”
She told CBS News on Friday that when COVID started to surge in the state around December 20, she began discussing the situation with other local leaders. Soon after, she spoke with an individual who she described as “pretty high up in the governor’s office.”
That person, she said, told her about the tests, and did not want their name used “because of the fact this governor has a tendency to have revenge and they would most likely lose their job,” Fried said.
DeSantis’ office denied the accusation in an email to CBS affiliate WTSP earlier this week. But on Thursday at a press conference in West Palm Beach, DeSantis and other officials admitted to the expired tests.
“We had between 800,000 and a million test kits — Abbott test kits — in our warehouse that did expire,” Kevin Guthrie, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, said at the conference. “We tried to give them out prior to that, but there wasn’t a demand for it.”
Guthrie said the state received a three-month extension for the kits that expired between December 26 and 30, roughly a week after Fried first learned of the tests.
“Prior to that date, we did ask Abbott and the federal government for another three-month extension on those, so we could use those tests,” Guthrie said. “We’re still waiting to hear about that from HHS.”
DeSantis then said that the state doesn’t want “to send out inaccurate tests.”
“They already were extended in September. There wasn’t a lot of demand for them,” DeSantis said. “They’ve been sending them out as requested. There was no withholding anything. It’s just the FDA hasn’t gotten back to DEM about whether you can still send.”
Jeremy Redfern, the health department’s press secretary, tweeted Thursday that Fried was just “big mad” that the state was “over-prepared for another wave of COVID-19.”
He told CBS News that it’s “simply false” to suggest the state “waited around for these test kits to expire,” and that the pre-packaged kits have to be administered by “trained individuals,” as they are not designed for individual use.
“The FDA granted the test manufacturer a 3-month extension in May of 2021,” Redfern told CBS News. “The original expiration of the test kits in question was September 2021. The manufacturer has also informed us that they have submitted another extension request.”
DeSantis said the state had wanted to provide “a bunch” of the stockpiled tests to long-term care facilities when they received them, but that the facilities claimed they didn’t have staff on hand to administer them.
He pointed to Omicron for Florida’s test shortage, saying there “wasn’t a lot of COVID going around,” in the summer and fall, prompting “low demand.”
“Florida had one of the lowest COVID rates in the country during fall, so the demand for testing was correspondingly low,” DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw told CBS News. “Though tests went unused due to insufficient demand, as the governor said: it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared.”
Yet, in August, Florida reportedof COVID-19 — the most infections in a single day since the start of the pandemic.
And the state currently has the second-highest 28-day COVID case average in the U.S., with more than 745,200 reported cases in that time frame, according to Johns Hopkins University, and 615 deaths. The state has had nearly 4.5 million cases since COVID first hit the nation.
Many Florida residents have questioned DeSantis’ claim of “low demand” for the tests.
In the week leading up to December 30, there were more than a million COVID tests performed in Florida, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 3 million in the month leading up to that date.
“I have spent the last 4 days crawling up the state trying to find [over the counter] test for my whole family who is sick,” one person tweeted this week. “Cant find any. You cant even book a drive thru appointment for 2 weeks.”
“Spoke with a friend in Florida. He is desperate,” another person tweeted on December 30. “He needs to get his 90 year old mom a Covid test and he can’t find any at home test, the line for PCR is over 4 hours long.”
Florida resident Ryan Prem told CBS News that when he and his wife were attempting to get tested the week before Christmas, their local testing site had a walk-up line of about 100 people. When they went back to the site closer to Christmas and New Year, he said, “it seemed like double.”
“I can only imagine how many people were testing positive,” he told CBS News. “I personally know about 15 people who just in the past 2-3 weeks tested positive, though a majority of them were previously fully vaccinated.”
The long lines and difficult-to-find tests are not new in the state, and people have expressed their frustrations with the process for months. In November, one person tweeted they “can’t find a covid test anywhere.”
Fried told CBS News that she had asked the governor to reopen state-run testing sites, which have been closed since May, before she found out about the stockpile.
“As of today,” she said on Friday, “we still don’t have any state-sponsored testing sites.”
“The lines wrapped around for hours upon hours, that start before the crack of dawn,” Fried said. “People are sitting in these cars and in these lines to get tests, and to say that there’s no demand — I don’t know where the governor was, but all he had to do was drive around any part of our state and would have seen the demand on the ground.”
Fried tweeted Thursday that the administration’s inaction on the expired tests is “a complete failure.” Officials, she said, should have distributed the tests to facilities throughout the state.
DeSantis’ disclosure of the expired tests came the same day the Florida Department of Health changed its testing guidance to “maximize the benefits” of COVID testing. The new guidance says that those who are not at increased risk of severe illness from COVID, including those older than 65, with underlying health issues, or pregnant, should “consider” getting tested after they get symptoms and only seek medical treatment if necessary.
For those who have been exposed to COVID but have no symptoms, the guidance says, “testing is unlikely to have any clinical benefits.”
“If you get symptoms, you should avoid contact with others,” a press release on the guidance says. “A positive COVID-19 test result will not change this recommendation.”