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Gov. DeSantis Questions Efficacy Of Testing And South Florida's Business Restrictions On Curbing COV

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggests South Florida should join the rest of the state in the second phase of economic recovery efforts.

He says having venues like bars closed down hasn’t helped bring down the positivity rate in this region.

"The part of Florida that had the most significant outbreak were our three phase one counties, which did not have and have not had pubs open since the middle of March," DeSantis said about Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties at a meeting in Altamonte Springs on Wednesday about the impact of the pandemic on mental health. "I think the obvious inference was a lot of the same socializing was going on, it was just in a private venue."

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Many businesses shut down or scaled back their operations in March and April. The first phase of reopening started in May and in June went into a second phase that excluded these South Florida counties.

The second phase allowed bars, tattoo shops and movie theaters to partially reopen with Department of Health (DOH) guidelines. It also increases the maximum restaurant occupancy.

Earlier this week, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said that for now, he does not plan to lift restrictions even though numbers are improving.

"We need to get way under the 10 percent positivity benchmark based on the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and medical experts’ advice before we start to reopen more businesses," Gimenez said. "So everybody, do your part, we can move forward together."

He said White House Coronavirus Task Force members Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci advised him to keep business restrictions as they are, despite the improvements because they expect a second surge in COVID-19 numbers this fall.

At the event in Altamonte Springs Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis also questioned whether too much money has been spent on testing, which is — to infectious disease experts — an essential method for containing the spread of the new coronavirus. That's because once a person tests positive, they should isolate and avoid spreading it to the public.

"We've spent all this money on, like, testing and this and that, and that's fine, but what would have more bang for the buck, testing an asymptomatic 22 year old or putting some of that money towards mental health in schools?" he asked.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County has added two new testing sites this week with later operating hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

One is at the Salvation Army at 911 W. Flagler St. and the other one is at the Ronald L. Book Athletic Stadium, known as the North Miami Stadium, which opens on Thursday.

Testing in Florida includes three types. An antibody test tells whether a person has built up the proteins that help fight off infections known as antibodies. That's why having antibodies indicates whether a person had an infection at some point in time.

The second type is the molecular test, also called the PCR test.

"What it's searching for is the genetic material of the virus," said Jason Salemi, an epidemiology professor at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. "When they take the sample from a person either through the nose or however they collect the specimen, what they're trying to do is test that genetic material of the virus."

A nose swab, for instance, doesn't yield very much material to work with. "So they have a process by which they are amplifying the genetic material and that way they can actually detect it," Salemi said about work that gets done in a lab with chemicals.

"[PCR tests] do a better job of eliminating both false negatives and false positives, but even those tests are not perfect. The other type of test is what we call the antigen test," he said. "That's not looking for the genetic material of the virus; that's looking for proteins on the surface of the virus."

The antigen test, which is the newest one available, can be less accurate than the molecular test. A false negative is especially concerning because it gives somebody the wrong sense of security to relax social mitigation steps and go out in public. Because labs are generally taking one to four weeks to return PCR test results, people in high-risk populations who need to get tested urgently may benefit from an antigen test, experts say. In South Florida, antigen test results are usually available within 15 minutes.

"You're kind of sacrificing some accuracy for the ability to get those results back," Salemi added about the antigen test. "Most experts say that we should, in an effort to try and understand and curb the pandemic, prioritize the speed with which you get your results back over those differences in accuracy."

Testing is what yields the state's positivity rate, which is the percentage of people testing positive on any given day or time frame like a week or 14 days. This rate helps guide elected officials whether to reopen businesses and schools, for instance. The higher the positivity rate, the more the disease is spreading. Epidemiologists say a high positivity rate may also indicate that not enough testing is taking place.

Statewide, the health department reported a 7 percent positivity rate. Palm Beach County has had a roughly 5 percent positivity rate while Miami-Dade County dropped below 10 percent Wednesday, according to the DOH.

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Verónica Zaragovia