OKEECHOBEE – In early May, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrival of the state’s first-ever mobile testing facility, a RV that had been turned into a lab which can provide COVID-19 test results in just 45 minutes and test 500 people a day.
It was certainly newsworthy when a visit by this one-of-a-kind mobile unit was announced for Okeechobee. Until that day, all of the COVID-19 testing offered in Okeechobee County required the person meet certain criteria to qualify for testing. This was the first testing available open to anyone who simply wished to be tested.
The arrival of the mobile testing facility was not exactly as impressive as anticipated. While testing started on time as advertised in the City Park next door to Okeechobee City Hall, the RV lab was a little late as it ran out of gas at the main intersection of U.S. 441 and State Road 70. Still, I found the personnel at the test site to be friendly, professional and efficient.
Testing went fairly quickly. There was a small crowd waiting when testing started at 9 a.m., but it soon thinned out. While there was steady stream of people being tested all day, the wait was generally less than 10 or 15 minutes. Out of journalistic curiosity as well as community spirit, I decided to join the line and be tested, even though I had none of the COVID-19 symptoms. I reasoned that in order to write about testing, it would be helpful to actually be tested. I also wanted to do my part to ensure that 500 people turned out for the test to illustrate the need for more testing in Okeechobee County.
It took just a few minutes for the registration. I was asked if I needed the results for work. When I answered in the negative, I was asked for and provided a phone number. Others – who did need the test results for work – told me they were asked for an email address to send the results.
The test itself was unpleasant, but it was quick. Like some others who have endured the deep swab of the nasal passages I felt the overwhelming urge to blow my nose.
For the rest of the day, I kept the cell phone close to make sure I didn’t miss the phone call with my results. But … the phone call did not come on Friday … or over the weekend. By Monday, I started asking questions.
My first email went to the Okeechobee County Health Department. The response directed me to StatLab Mobile phone 844-469-5227 and email@example.com. The phone number went directly to voice mail and the voice mailbox was full. I have still received no response to my email.
I discovered some people did get their results. The Okeechobee Health Care Facility had their staff tested at that mobile facility visit, accounting for about 200 of the tests done that day. On June 15, OHCF announced “the majority of the results” had been returned and six employees had tested positive.
But others who were tested kept waiting for results.
At the Thursday, June 18 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Tiffany Collins of the Okeechobee County Health Department, said mobile lab is owned and operated by StatLab Mobile based in Miami County. They report results directly into the FDOH database, she explained.
“We were able to determine that 509 individuals were tested at that mobile bus, but not all of the reports were reported to Okeechobee County,” she explained. She said some of the test results were incorrectly entered into the database as Miami-Dade County tests. They are working with FDOH to straighten out the test reports, she explained.
There were 58 positives that came out of the mobile bus that day, she explained. Three were not Okeechobee County residents. However, 34 of those positives were incorrectly added to Miami-Dade County list, she said.
Meanwhile, some of those who had been tested on June 12 were wondering if only those who tested positive would be contacted with results from the tests. Perhaps, they said, no news was good news.
Once again I emailed the health department, and asked if it was safe to assume – since the health department knew how many people had tested positive and had access to the data – that everyone who tested positive had been notified and the contact tracing done to test their family members and other contacts.
The response I received from the Okeechobee Health Department was troubling: “Due to the delay in electronic reporting by StatLab, at this time, in an answer to your question, it would not be safe to assume those who tested positive have been contacted by the health department for contact tracing, if tested for COVID-19 by COVID Mobile StatLab Bus in City Hall Park on 6/12/2020. Results for COVID-19 tests are given to patients by the ordering physician. Each lab is responsible to electronically report in the state’s communicable disease database (Merlin) or inform the Florida Department of Health so that the information may be placed into Merlin by hand.”
I searched for other ways to contact StatLab, and found an old press release about a mobile lab visit to another county. I tried emailing the public relations consultant who distributed that press release.
The response, from Bradley Norman of the Ted Miller Group LLC, was: “Statlab Mobile is responsible for facilitating the tests on behalf of the state department, who are handling the notification process. Our team has reached out to the state department regarding the below to get you a contact who can help answer your questions.”
Later that day, Mr. Norman got back to me with the contact information for the director of communications with the Florida Division of Emergency Management Jason Mahon. I emailed Mr. Mahon with my questions about the COVID test notifications.
Mr. Mahon’s response, which I received at 6:52 p.m. on Friday, June 20 stated: “The state has increased testing statewide at drive-thru, walk-up and mobile sites. The mobile COVID-19 testing lab deployed to further assist the state’s proactive testing efforts. The mobile lab began conducting testing the first week of May in Miami-Dade County and has tested more than 7,200 individuals to date. Individuals are contacted as quickly as possible, with priority being placed on anyone who tested positive. When the state is notified an individual is experiencing a delay in results, we immediately look into the issue and work with the lab to resolve the problem. If any other individuals are having difficulty obtaining their results, we encourage them to email ESF14@em.myflorida.com.”
Saturday morning, around 10 a.m., my cell phone rang with an undisclosed caller from a blocked number. I almost didn’t answer it, as such calls are usually spam, but I have answered every call since I was tested. The caller said he was calling from the Florida Department of Health. He confirmed my identity and date of testing and told me my COVID-19 test was negative.
Others who were tested June 12 and were also waiting for their results told me they also received phone calls on Saturday.
What does the test result mean for me? It means I did not have COVID-19 on June 12. It does not mean I don’t have it now because I could have been exposed after I was tested.
All any of us can do is assume we may be COVID-19 positive and contagious, and do our best to prevent spreading the virus to others:
• As much as possible, avoid places where large numbers of people may be present.
• Maintain 6 feet of social distance from others. If you go into a public building where you will not be able to maintain 6 feet of social distance, wear a cloth face covering.
• Wear a cloth face covering. The face mask or bandanna can help protect others from you if you are COVID-19 positive. According to the CDC, the COVID-19 virus spreads most easily through the moisture that leaves your mouth and nose when you talk, cough or sneeze. The cloth catches those droplets so they don’t infect others around you. Your mask helps protect others. Their masks helps protect you.
• Wash your hands often and thoroughly.
• Sanitize high touch areas.
• Stay home if you are sick.
The Florida Department of Health report shows testing reported for Okeechobee County:
• June 12 - 79 tests, 9 positive;
• June 13 - 274 tests, 30 positive;
• June 14 - 88 tests, 6 positive;
• June 15 - 45 tests, 4 positive;
• June 16 - 29 tests, 6 positive;
• June 17 - 40 tests, 7 positive;
• June 18 - 57 tests, 7 positive;
• June 19 - 36 tests, 9 positive.
As of June 20, FDOH reported 240 positives to date in Okeechobee County including two non-Florida residents.