Drive-thru coronavirus testing planned in Broward

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Sunday evening that his administration is working with Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County to set up a drive-through system where certain people can be tested for free.

DeSantis also hinted that more steps might come as soon as Monday because of new federal guidelines about the virus known as COVID-19.

“We want to do it in a way that’s going to make an impact,” DeSantis told reporters about the drive-through testing, adding that the state was working on “clear guidance” on how the test site would operate.

“Clearly the folks who are elderly that have symptoms that have an underlying medical condition, we want to have the easiest way possible for them to test. And then, if need be, to get treatment or to self-isolate,” the governor said.

Appearing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, DeSantis said he doesn’t have a projected starting date for the drive-through testing but said that he was working with the National Guard to have it operational as soon as possible.

“I think Memorial has a high capacity to accomplish the mission and, obviously we want to put resources where there’s the greatest need,” DeSantis said. “And so being able to identify and get a baseline of how much this has spread in Broward is going to be important and It'll help our efforts at containment and mitigation.” 

Memorial is a large public-hospital system, and Broward has been a hot spot for coronavirus cases in Florida.

In drive-through testing situations, patients don’t get out of their cars. Health-care workers, donning protective equipment like gloves and masks, approach the cars to conduct swab tests.

DeSantis acknowledged that there could be more drive-through testing sites made available in the coming days and weeks as Florida fights what health-care experts now acknowledge is “community spread” of the highly contagious respiratory disease.

The governor also announced that he would ask the U.S. Small Business Association to “turn on” loans for small businesses that are suffering.

“They are suffering negative consequences because of a totally external event,” he said.

The virus, which started late last year in Wuhan, China, had infected 153,517 people worldwide as of Sunday and has been deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization. The virus is responsible for 5,735 deaths, according to the WHO.

Florida has reported 149 positive cases, a figure that includes 13 people who are not residents but are staying in the state after testing positive for the virus. Another six cases involve Florida residents who are in other states after testing positive for COVID-19.

The virus is particularly dangerous to seniors and people with underlying medical conditions. To protect the state’s large elderly population, DeSantis on Saturday announced that visitation at long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is banned for the next 30 days. 

DeSantis also said the state would follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on eating at restaurants, which he said should be released on Monday.

Meanwhile the governor praised the mayors of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach for closing beaches. Restaurants and bars are also closing at 10 p.m. and have been asked to limit crowds to 250 people or less.

The governor said images “over the weekend of massive gatherings of a lot of college students” on Florida’s beaches and bars “is something that’s problematic,” noting that college students can contract the virus, not be symptomatic and spread it to others.

“We have asked to not have gatherings over 250 people. And as I said, you’ve had some really serious events that a lot of people were looking forward to that had been canceled because people were trying to do the right things,” he said. “So to have people congregating in these bars or on these beaches like this, I think undercuts our efforts to protect our vulnerable populations.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommended that in-person events of 50 or more people be canceled or postponed for the next eight weeks, though it said the recommendation "does not apply to the day-to-day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning or businesses."

Meanwhile, DeSantis said Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mayhew has been looking for underused hospitals that could perhaps be used by the state for COVID-19 patients in case other hospitals become swamped. Moreover, the state has secured “pop up” hospitals that can be used if necessary.

--- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this story