When the coronavirus pandemic first took hold last spring, the United States faced a dire shortage of Covid-19 tests, which could have helped officials track where the virus had already been transmitted and contain its spread. By mid-March 2020, fewer than 50,000 people had been tested in the entire country.
American Oversight has previously published records highlighting the struggles that arose from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s failure to create accurate tests in the crucial early weeks of the pandemic. We’ve now obtained nearly 1,000 pages of documents from the Florida Department of Emergency Management (DEM) that provide additional insight into how those testing failures impacted the Sunshine State, leaving state officials without adequate supply and at times without clear information about when more could be expected.
At the time, health officials were still learning about how the coronavirus spread, including the fact that it can be transmitted by those with no discernible symptoms. Despite the growing knowledge about asymptomatic transmission, federal guidance still encouraged limiting tests to those who displayed symptoms.
The documents we obtained include an email from March 6, 2020, in which Bret D. Daugherty, the director of emergency management programs in Washington state, where the first Covid-19 outbreak in the U.S. was recorded that February, wrote: “Young, healthy people below the age of 60 catch the virus easily and will have symptoms similar to a cold, or they may not have noticeable symptoms at all. … If young people who have the disease come into contact with senior citizens or people with compromised immune systems, it can result in death from pneumonia-like symptoms.”
Weeks later, HHS distributed guidance that recommended limiting testing to those over the age of 65 with symptoms and to health care workers with direct patient contact. According to the guidance, “If the person does NOT meet the criteria to be tested, they will NOT be tested.”
Limited testing supplies also made it difficult to test a more people. As Florida officials awaited additional tests, supply limitations restricted testing even among first responders. In an email thread from March 19, DEM Director Jared Muskovitz attempted to learn from federal officials when additional swabs would be sent to the state. “The 5000? 3 days or 5 days?” Muskovitz asked, responding to a FEMA official’s message indicating that “it may take a few days for the swabs to get to FL.”
On March 24, 2020, Florida Department of Health official Sharon Denton-Gow emailed DEM officials Brooke Kincaid, Linda McWhorter, and Kevin Guthrie about the shortage of swabs: “We have 5000 kits but they are missing nasopharyngeal swabs which make them unusable. Currently [we’re] down to 650 kits. … We did not realize that the 5000 were incomplete kits.”
That same day, Guthrie wrote to FEMA, HHS, and National Guard officials: “Please also understand that there are nearly 50K first responders in Miami, Broward, Palm Beach foot print and we are limited to 250 tests per day.”
Research has shown that widespread testing in the pandemic’s first months could have saved thousands of lives.
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