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DeSantis and surgeon general rail against unrestrained COVID testing

Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida surgeon general Joseph Ladapo criticized the federal government's focus on testing to slow the spread of COVID in Jacksonville Tuesday, after removing about a dozen people from the room.
Claire Heddles
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, in Jacksonville on Tuesday, criticized the federal government's focus on testing to slow the spread of COVID.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo railed Tuesday against mask mandates and people who get COVID tests without having symptoms. They also announced plans for a second monoclonal antibody site in Northeast Florida.

Their comments came at a news conference in Jacksonville, shortly after DeSantis' team kicked about a dozen community members out of the room where the press conference was supposed to be held. Community activist Ben Frazier was arrested for trespassing, and the press conference was moved from the public department of health building to a law enforcement building.

"People, unfortunately, having their faces half covered when there's not even good evidence that it's making any benefit, any difference whatsoever," Ladapo told reporters Tuesday. "It's been testing people that have no symptoms, that are not sick, and calling them 'cases'"

"It's been just introducing just the most perverse beliefs and sort of norms," Ladapo said.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville residents have been waiting in lines for hours for COVID tests; case rates have spiked to more than 8,000 a week; and local vaccination rates lag 10% behind the statewide rate.

DeSantis did not talk about bolstering COVID testing for the general public Tuesday. Instead, he announced plans to open a second monoclonal antibody treatment site in Jacksonville.

He also committed to increase testing at nursing homes in order to find the people who are most likely to benefit from monoclonal antibody treatment. 

The treatment can help people who test positive for COVID avoid hospitalization, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration halted shipments of most monoclonal antibody options after data showed they were ineffective against omicron.

DeSantis' team forcibly removed about a dozen community members from the Department of Health room where the governor was going to hold a press conference.
Claire Heddles
Gov. Ron DeSantis' team forcibly removed about a dozen community members from the Department of Health room where the governor was going to hold a press conference.

DeSantis said the state's surgeon general will release guidance in the coming days limiting who should get tested for COVID.

"You'll have certain people that will go out and will just get tested all the time at some of these sites, and that's not a good use of resources," DeSantis said. "The idea that if you just had a lot of testing that you could somehow stop the spread, or these waves, that is just not happening."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has consistently reported that masking does reduce transmission of COVID and tracking asymptomatic cases is important to be able to slow its spread.  Local doctors also have echoed the importance of widespread testing.

"Testing is so important, and the reason we're doing testing is because you do not want to go out into the community and spread this highly spreadable virus. It's the bottom line," Michelle Aquino, hospitalist at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, told WJCT News' First Coast Connect.

Jacksonville has just one city-funded rapid testing site, which set a new limit to the number of tests on Monday. The mayor's office told City Council members on Monday that the site was running out of money.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry was not at Tuesday morning's press conference. His office announced later in the afternoon that Curry has tested positive for COVID.

The mayor's director of community affairs, Charles Moreland, was there instead and praised the governor for the new monoclonal antibody site.

"We are fortunate that the governor is working to bring much needed a second sight to North Florida," Moreland said. "Our governor has demonstrated time and time again that he cares about the people of Jacksonville."

The community members who tried to attend Tuesday's press conference and were kicked out disagreed.

Christina Kittle, with the groups Florida Rising and Jacksonville Community Action Committee, said they wanted to hear from the governor directly about limited testing access in Jacksonville.

"I think that the response of the governor's representatives and the police is very much the same response we've been seeing the whole way through, which is no questions are getting answered," Kittle said.

Duval County has more than 8,000 new COVID cases last week, according to the latest available data, compared with fewer than 300 a month ago.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.