The first day of COVID-19 testing kicked off at The Villages Polo Fields – about 30 miles from Ocala – on Monday morning amid a visit from Gov. Ron DeSantis, an announcement that the majority of the samples are being conducted for research and a huge policy change – non-Villagers are now welcome to participate in the UF Health-led effort.
DeSantis addressed the plan shortly after 10:30 a.m. as golf carts and vehicles continually drove behind apparently him heading to the testing lines. He made it quite clear that those who live outside the walls of the mega-retirement community are allowed to take part in the testing effort, which is a complete reversal from information that was put out Sunday.
In fact, the website where residents are told to find out if they’re eligible for testing – https://ufhealthcovid.com/ – even removed the language saying it was restricted to Villagers, though it still encourages participation via golf cart.
DeSantis said there are two forms of testing taking place at the polo fields, which is being conducted by medical personnel and students from UF Health and the Developer-owned Villages Health. UF Health has a partnership with The Villages and also owns the hospitals in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown and Leesburg.
The first is the standard clinical test for those who are showing symptoms and have been recommended after answering a questionnaire on the website. The other portion, which encompasses the vast majority of the testing, will focus on research and is being conducted with supplies and test kits provided by UF’s Infectious Disease Lab. Those haven’t yet received approval from the Food and Drug Administration, the agency’s website says.
DeSantis said 2,000 samples – 400 a day – will be collected through Friday, March 27. Of those, 1,400-1,600 will be collected for research purposes, while the remaining samples will be in the clinical category.
“If you do not meet even broad screening criteria to have your sample clinically tested, you can still elect to have your sample tested by a separate UF-developed test for COVID,” he said. “That will go into research to be able to determine how prevalent COVID-19 is among asymptomatic individuals. This will give us some data on that.”
DeSantis said the drive-through site will be open each day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the end of this week, when staff members will reassess the hours of operation and the need for additional testing. He said all of the tests will be analyzed at UF’s lab and results will be delivered within 24 hours.
“The more data and facts that we can apply to this, the better I think the measures will be to protect people,” DeSantis said. “In the absence of facts, I think people are forced to kind of go on assumptions. And those assumptions may be wrong.”
DeSantis also said he wasn’t surprised when Florida broke the 1,000 mark in COVID-19 cases on Sunday night because testing has been greatly expanded over the past week alone. He said initially those who tested positive had a hospitalization rate of about 40 percent, but that’s since dropped to under 20 percent.
Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said he had been in conversations with Villages officials throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he realizes the screenings, closures of businesses, cancellations of events and social distancing have been tough on the senior population like those in The Villages who are enjoying their “golden” years, but he said it’s the “best way” to protect them.
Moskowitz also directed a message to the younger generations, many of whom haven’t appeared to take the COVID-19 outbreak seriously and even have complained about their spring breaks being canceled because of it.
“You can ruin somebody’s life here at The Villages if you don’t social distance from our elderly population,” he said. “If you’re not feeling well, stay home. Heed the warnings, listen to the guidance and do the screening.”
He also encouraged them to take care of their elderly neighbors during this difficult time.
“Call them, see what they need and drop the supplies outside their door,” he said. “You can be a hero by making sure that we’re taking care of the elderly.”
DeSantis’ visit came one day after it was revealed that 67-year-old Villager Tony Perry is hospitalized in Leesburg with the Coronavirus. His wife, Susan, a medical professional at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a former critical care nurse in the U.S. Air Force, is self-quarantined at their Village of Monarch Grove home.