WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, on Thursday slammed the current administration's handling of the pandemic – specifically as it related to the distribution of at-home COVID tests.
Back on Dec. 30, Fried accused the Florida Department of Health of storing a large number of a particular type of COVID-19 tests that were about to expire.
“It’s come to my attention that Governor DeSantis’ Department of Health has a significant number of COVID-19 tests stockpiled that are set to expire imminently," Fried wrote at the time.
"Given the Governor’s lack of transparency throughout this pandemic, there’s no known public information about these tests or how soon they expire," Fried continued in her prior statement. "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. To let these tests expire while Floridians anxiously wait for hours in testing lines is negligent at best, and heartless at worst.”
Earlier this week, in an email response to 10 Tampa Bay, DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw denied Fried's accusation.
"...the governor’s office does not have any COVID tests, so Commissioner Fried’s statement is simply false," Pushaw told 10 Tampa Bay at the time. "I’d defer to DOH for details on state supported testing."
Some clarity on the matter came during a news conference DeSantis held on Thursday in West Palm Beach. Asked by a reporter about Fried's claim the state was stockpiling tests, DeSantis turned the podium over to Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie.
“We had between 800,000 and a million test kits – Abbott rapid test kits in our warehouse – that did expire," Guthrie explained. "We tried to give them out prior to that, but there was not a demand for it.”
“We received a three-month extension on those test kits, which ended up expiring between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30," Guthrie added. "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. We’re still waiting to hear about that from HHS.”
Stepping back to the microphone, DeSantis echoed Guthrie's explanation that there had been few requests for these specific tests, which require training to administer, in Florida between September and November.
"There wasn’t a lot of demand for them," the governor told reporters. "They’ve been sending them out as requested. There’s been no withholding anything. It’s just that the FDA has not gotten back to DEM about whether you can still send.”
But, that explanation did not sit well with Fried.
"This is why I speak up," Fried wrote in a Twitter response to the governor. She took the governor's words as an admission that the state had a "secret stockpile" of tests that "DeSantis didn't distribute."
"It's bad enough that Governor DeSantis has deprioritized testing with Omicron exploding across Florida, but it's an absolute disgrace for the Governor and his communications team to have lied and covered up the massive failure of a million unused tests while Floridians wait in hours-long lines for local tests that are running out," Fried wrote in a statement.
In a news conference, Fried said the governor was "not fit to serve."
DOH Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern, who had previously tweeted that Fried should "get back in her lane," offered more clarification Thursday evening.
"To suggest that the Florida Department of Health waited around for these test kits to expire is simply false," Redfern explained. "The FDA granted the test manufacturer a 3-month extension in May of 2021. 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."
According to Redfern, the pre-packaged COVID tests that Fried was referring to "require trained individuals for administration, with one testing solution for every 40 tests."
He says they were not designed for individual use. DeSantis, too, referenced this as a reason for why demand was lower for these particular tests – suggesting facilities wanted rapid testing options that were easier to use.
Still, Redfern explained, these tests were always available.
"Since obtaining a supply of COVID-19 test kits, the Department has supported mission requests from various partners, including, but not limited to, county emergency management agencies, county health departments, public safety agencies, hospitals, and long-term care facilities," Redfern wrote in an email. "Our staff continuously notified our partners of the availability of these tests."
Since July 1, 2021, Redfern says the health department has distributed 3.4 million tests statewide.
A key focus of DeSantis' news conference in West Palm Beach was to lay out his administration's new strategy for getting more COVID tests into the hands of people described as most vulnerable to the virus. DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo will be prioritizing seniors under the plan, which includes sending one million at-home tests (different than the ones Fried questioned) to nursing homes and assisted living facilities statewide.
The governor's administration said these other at-home tests would be shipped out Thursday and would begin arriving as soon as this weekend. These tests, Guthrie indicated, were basically "starter" kits – and residents could reorder more through an online portal.
“We’ve obtained tests and we're directing them to where the tests are most likely to have a benefit. Which is in communities and environments where high-risk individuals reside," Ladapo said. "This is sensible public health."
DeSantis has maintained that the federal government has not prepared enough testing supplies to support its mass testing initiative, leaving Florida to work to secure and distribute its own tests where it can.
In response to Thursday's events, Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Marcus L. Dixon emailed a statement calling the governor's strategy "nonsense."
"Unless seniors can be secluded from everyone else, limiting testing to seniors will only ensure they are around COVID positive people who don’t know their status," Dixon wrote. "His incompetence is costing us our freedom and costing lives!”
The Florida GOP disagreed.
"High-value COVID testing is the most effective way to ensure Florida residents get life-saving treatments immediately. That’s why @GovRonDeSantis is putting Seniors First," the state Republican Party tweeted.