Palm Beach County approves up to $500,000 for at-home COVID-19 test kits
Facing surging demand for COVID-19 tests and hours-long lines at some testing sites, Palm Beach County commissioners unanimously gave the county administrator the authority to spend up to $500,000 from the federal government on at-home test kits to distribute to residents.
Palm Beach County has also requested 250,000 kits from the state, Administrator Verdenia Baker said. They have confirmed they'll be getting 45,000 of those kits, with 24,000 that were expected to be in the county's possession on Tuesday.
New coronavirus infections in Palm Beach County have skyrocketed since December. During the final week of 2021, the county's coronavirus caseload exploded by 24,488 infections. And 30.6% of tests came back positive, the third-highest level of Florida's 67 counties.
"I do want to temper expectations on this," Baker said. "It's like filling an ocean. The demand is always going to be there."
Baker stressed that testing would not be the sole solution to addressing the pandemic and highlighted the importance of residents and visitors getting the COVID-19 vaccine and booster, maintaining social distancing and curbing social gatherings. She added that another monoclonal antibody treatment site is set to open in Palm Beach County but did not say when it would open or where.
With the authorization to buy thousands of testing kits, Baker said, "I'm hoping the state does not take this message (as) we don’t need their help."
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How will the test kits be distributed in Palm Beach County?
County officials are working on setting up regional sites for test kit distribution on a first-come, first-served basis, but the kits will not be mailed to residents like the mask distribution in 2020, Baker said.
Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron noted that most of the locations have had "pretty long lines," with certain sites like FAU Tech Runway seeing record testing last week.
"We've seen reports of people waiting for multiple hours in some locations. At least an hour, if not longer, sometimes upwards of 2½ to three hours in some locations, so that's pretty significant," he said.
Some commissioners expressed concern that results from at-home test kits would not be added to the reported tally of new coronavirus cases, which would limit the understanding of the coronavirus' true spread in the community.
"Testing at home is not going to give us the kind of recorded results we get when people go to public sites," County Mayor Robert Weinroth said.
Test kits: Expiration dates and access aren't completely clear
And some commissioners weren't sure that the kits would arrive in time to address the current need. A spokesman for the state-run county health department did not return a request for comment Tuesday about the shelf life of at-home tests.
Expiration dates differ by test manufacturer. One constituent in the north county district represented by Commissioner Maria Marino told her the date on their test kit is September.
Also, certain vulnerable populations who need a test may not have equitable access to the kits at drive-up sites, Commissioner Maria Sachs noted.
"There are many people who really need these kits, who may be homebound or seniors or unable to drive to this location to pick up a kit," she said.
Yet other commissioners preferred to act now and move forward with a plan to provide at-home tests to residents, in line with a move last month by the federal government.
"There's going to be a litany of other situations with COVID where we're going to be left unprepared if we don't have this forethought and action to obtain the resources we need," Commissioner Dave Kerner said. "No, it's not reported. No, the efficacy isn't as high. But it gives people an option to test themselves at home, not to have to go sit on PGA (Boulevard) or in Caloosa (Park), which is a great resource, but that can't be the end-all of the strategy."
Knowing up-to-date information about how many people are hospitalized in Palm Beach County for COVID-19 would show the severity of the omicron variant, as well as statistics on patients' vaccination status.
Hospitals provided such data daily to the county Department of Emergency Management from August to October, when commissioners stopped requiring it. The medical figures showed how fast the delta mutation was filling up hospitals and that the vast majority of patients had not received the two-dose vaccine regimens or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
As hospitalizations surge once more countywide, commissioners have not announced plans to bring back a public-facing online dashboard displaying data from local hospitals collected by the county emergency department.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collects COVID-19 hospitalization statistics from local medical facilities, but their data is not always up to date and is tougher to read than the county's dashboard was.
"More data isn't going to make the anti-vaccine, anti-maskers or COVID deniers respond any differently," Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said. "The people who are worried about this latest wave are the ones already taking precautions. More data won't change their minds, either."
But, she said, if she hears from aides that hospitals are forcing out patients because of lack of space, she would call for hospital data collection to resume.
Hannah Morse is a reporter covering Palm Beach County. She can be reached at email@example.com or 561-820-4833. Follow her on Twitter at @mannahhorse.