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Florida officials want to administer COVID-19 tests only for certain groups of people. Chet Strange/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Florida officials have adopted a new policy that encourages COVID-19 “high value” testing only for people who are at higher risk of severe illness from the disease.
  • These groups include people over age 65, pregnant people, and people with certain medical conditions.
  • Supporters say the approach will free up the limited amount of test kits for people who need testing the most.
  • However, critics say the limited testing could increase COVID-19 transmission, because people with the illness won’t be aware they have it.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week announced a new approach to COVID-19 testing in his state.

The plan focuses on “high value” testing only for people at high risk of severe illness from the disease.

Among those “high value” targets are adults ages 65 and older, pregnant individuals, and people with medical conditions such as cancer, chronic lung disease, and immunodeficiencies.

The move comes amid a surge in demand that has led to a nationwide testing crunch, which DeSantis pointed to as a motivator for the policy change.

However, critics say this situation could have been avoided by getting more tests to people who needed them at an earlier date.

They add that this new approach could also produce an undercounting of the actual number of COVID-19 cases in Florida and potentially worsen the spread of the disease.

“The benefit to Florida in the short term is that they will be able to maintain some testing with a limited number of tests and supplies, and if they can guarantee certain high risk groups have an easier time to get tested, they should be able to quickly get them into treatment and prevent death and disability,” said Dylan H. Roby, PhD, an associate professor of health, society, and behavior at the University of California at Irvine’s Program in Public Health.

“In addition, it will make the absolute numbers of cases reported in Florida look lower than they actually are, which could benefit Governor DeSantis politically,” he said.

“However, there are no real public health benefits to instituting these requirements and effectively rationing tests to ‘high value groups,’ because it will simply result in much of the infected population not knowing whether they are infected or not, such that they might continue going to school, work, or engage in other activities that put others at risk,” Roby told Healthline.

Florida, it should be noted, isn’t the only place that has tried this sort of testing approach.

Erica Susky, an infection control practitioner in hospital epidemiology in Toronto, Canada, said her hospital has tried a similar approach. She said it makes sense in certain circumstances.

“This occurred [in Toronto] because there were so many people in the community getting COVID-19 from the Omicron variant of concern (VOC) that the groups that needed to rule out COVID-19, like healthcare workers so they can return to work, had to wait many days before they could even secure a time to get a test,” Susky told Healthline.

“The drawbacks are that those in the community would not necessarily know if they have COVID-19 and may not isolate as long as they should. [But] this drawback would not outweigh the benefits,” she added.

“We can assume with decent certainty that anyone with a cold-like illness or symptoms of a viral illness are likely to have COVID-19 and should stay at home as the prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron VOC is quite high,” Susky said.

While that assumption might work in a vacuum, many employers in the United States require proof of a positive COVID-19 test for employees to be able to stay home and quarantine without penalty.

“All symptomatic and asymptomatic patients coming out of quarantine or isolation should have a COVID-19 negative test before returning to work,” said Kenneth Campbell, MPH, the program director of Tulane University’s online master’s in health administration and an assistant professor in the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in Louisiana.

“Many patients may be asymptomatic, but they still have the potential to spread the virus,” Campbell told Healthline. “For many employers, workers who have tested negative and are returning to work does provide some positive reassurance that they are doing all they can to keep a virus-free environment.”

Without that, COVID-19 surges will continue to persist.

“Overall, you are not going to get a handle on reducing COVID-19 rates with this approach,” Campbell added. “COVID-19 cases will continue to increase, and possibly more people will die from this virus.”

The state of Florida, for its part, has backpedaled slightly since the governor’s announcement. They say that no one asking for a COVID-19 test will be denied one, but their messaging remains skeptical of whether healthy people need tests.

“This approach fails to be inclusive of essential and frontline workers from all areas and geographical locations,” Campbell said. “A comprehensive approach would include ensuring all populations should have their barriers removed to testing and vaccination.”