DeSantis announces hurricane preparedness grant for Lake Butler, gives update on expired COVID tests

UNION COUNTY, Fla. — During a visit to Union County on Friday morning, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke about a state stockpile of expired COVID-19 tests, and also gave an update on his wife Casey’s treatment for breast cancer.

DeSantis was in Lake Butler to announce a grant that will allow leaders to help fortify infrastructure to prepare for hurricanes.

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The grant is a community development block grant program administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and the City of Lake Butler will get $3.5 million for waste water collection and pumping system hardening.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle said the money is for areas across the state that are struggling from past storms like Hurricane Irma.

“We’re talking about Hurricane Irma, four-and-a-half years ago, some may think ‘why now?’ This is money for last resort to help meet unmet needs. At the Department of Economic Opportunity, we have the Office of Long-Term Resilency. So we look for areas across the state that are still trying to recover from past storms and that’s the exact purpose of these funds,” Eagle said.

COVID-19 test stockpile in Florida

After the grant was awarded, Action News Jax’s Jessica Barreto asked DeSantis if the state had received an extension from the federal government on the expiration dates for the stockpile of COVID-19 tests.

“No. The DEM (Division of Emergency Management) has been asking about that for many, many weeks anticipating that,” DeSantis said. “And basically, the way they do this is they always want to have enough tests, so that if people need them, they can send them down. The result of that is, you know, we had a stockpile; but no one really wanted them for many, many months. As the expiration date was coming, they had already gotten one extension, they had asked ‘can you do more, can you do more,’ they said no. So hopefully, they’ll answer that,” DeSantis said.

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DeSantis said the state was waiting on at home tests that the federal government promised, but hasn’t received them yet. He said the state has acquired 1 million at-home tests and those will be sent first to nursing homes.

DeSantis said having a stockpile was the right thing to do.

“If we had done the opposite, we would have run out and then had to order, as people had done it. We just had a lack of demand that happened in September, October, November, nobody was requesting them. They would have been used, I think, if we would have had omicron then,” he said.

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Now, he said the state is responding to the demand with the 1 million at-home tests and he thinks they will be able to obtain 1 million more.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is a Democrat running for governor this year, released the following statement about the expired tests:

“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. Given the Governor’s lack of transparency throughout this pandemic, there’s no known public information about these tests or how soon they expire. 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.”

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The Florida Department of Health gave Action News Jax the following statement about the expired tests:

“You probably recall the State transitioned to a locally-led, robust network of community providers back in June 2021. This transition ensured health decisions were in the hands of individual Floridians. Our local county health departments regularly communicate with local governments, private providers, and hospitals.

“To suggest that the Florida Department of Health waited around for these test kits to expire is simply false. 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.

“These pre-packaged COVID-19 test kits require trained individuals for administration, with one testing solution for every 40 tests. They were not designed for individual use.

“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. Our staff continuously notified our partners of the availability of these tests.

“In fact, the Florida Department of Health has distributed 3.4 million tests for COVID-19 statewide since July 1, 2021.

“The Department looks forward to supporting further mission requests submitted by county emergency management agencies and county health departments.

“Additionally, today, the State announced another initiative to put Seniors First in Florida. Florida will provide up to one million rapid tests as needed for residents of assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

“The Department of Health also issued new testing guidance today, Jan. 6. You can find that guidance here.”

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Christina Pushaw with Gov. DeSantis’ office issued the following statement on the stockpile:

“Just to be clear - DEM and DOH have always handled logistics for COVID tests and treatment. The Governor’s office never has stockpiles. But DEM was right not to give out any expired tests because those might not give accurate results. They ordered more than they ended up needing, but it is better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Also, the reason many of the tests weren’t used in the fall was the low demand. Florida had one of the lowest COVID rates in the country in October and November prior to Omicron so not many people needed to get tested. Everyone who wanted a test at that point was able to get it.”

Florida’s First Lady was getting cancer treatment the week after Christmas

DeSantis also gave an update on his wife Casey’s condition and how they are working to balance their public lives with private health matters.

In October, the couple announced that Casey DeSantis was diagnosed with breast cancer. Last Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis didn’t have anything on his public calendar.

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“A lot of these people, some in the media, but a lot of these politicians who are trying to get some traction, they were saying, ‘oh, he’s out vacationing,’” DeSantis said. “Turns out, we were down in Tampa doing this treatment. It’s not easy to go through for her, and it’s certainly not fun to watch somebody have to go through that, to watch your spouse go through that,” he said.

DeSantis said Florida’s First Lady wasn’t out of the woods just yet, but they are optimistic.

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“Our view is that 2022 will be the year that we can say she is cancer-free,” he said, getting a round of applause from the room.

You can watch the governor’s full news conference in the video below and on our Facebook page.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates and watch CBS47 at Noon for a live report.