Wealthy private island off Florida offers coronavirus testing to every resident

Fisher Island — an exclusive enclave of multi-million dollar condos and homes and one of the wealthiest ZIP Codes has purchased thousands of rapid COVID-19 blood test kits from the University of Miami Health System for all of its residents and workers.

The private island, set along Government Cut and nestled between Miami and Miami Beach and accessible only by boat, worked out a deal with UHealth to make the tests available to the 800 or so families that live there, and all the workers who maintain the property and patrol its streets.

The purchase and availability of the testing are in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the state, where only about 1 percent of the population has been tested for the deadly virus that has caused a global pandemic. Most people who want a test have to meet certain criteria during a screening. Then an appointment must be set up, which generally means a lengthy wait in line. Those without vehicles can’t even access drive-thru testing sites.

But that wouldn’t cut it on Fisher Island, where memberships in the Fisher Island Club cost about $250,000 and the average annual income was $2.5 million in 2015 — the highest of any ZIP Code in America, according to Bloomberg.

Sissy DeMaria, a spokeswoman for Fisher Island, noted that half of the island’s residents are over the age of 65, making them vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Fisher Island asked UM Health Clinic whether the antibody testing could be available and facilitated for all employees and residents through the on-site UHealth Clinic,” she said, adding that the island offered to cover the costs.

Testing and follow-up contact tracing for those who test positive is expected to be completed this week. The island ordered enough testing kits so that every resident and staff member could be tested, UHealth spokeswoman Lisa Worley said. UHealth has a clinic on Fisher Island whose doctors have helped administer the COVID-19 tests, Worley said.

“This is what the Fisher Island residents wanted,” Worley said. “Our physicians ordered it for them, they paid for it themselves.”

Details of the cost of the tests or how many people had taken them weren’t available, and residents reached by the Miami Herald who live on the island or belong to the club said the topic was too sensitive to discuss.

It also wasn’t clear whether the easy access to testing on the island has affected residents’ adherence to social distancing measures. According to state data, there are between five and nine confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Fisher Island ZIP Code, 33109.

DeMaria said the island has closed golf, tennis and marina facilities and limited island access to “essential personnel and visitors.”

The tests, which are finger-prick blood tests, detect the presence of antibodies, an important aspect that could determine who has already had the disease and is likely immune. It isn’t clear yet how long that immunity lasts.

The tests haven’t been widely available in South Florida.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the Fisher Island purchase was also separate from a COVID-19 blood testing program being administered by the county and University of Miami researchers, which involves testing a random sample of 750 residents across the county each week.

“None of the tests that the county purchased for the UM study have gone specifically to Fisher Island,” Gimenez said. “Our program has no intersection with whatever they are doing.”

Earlier this month, the mayor said the county secured 10,000 blood tests that cost $17 a piece. They were supplied by a company named BioMedomics, out of North Carolina.

A person with knowledge of Fisher Island’s testing who wished to remain anonymous said the test was offered to several Miami-Dade police officers who work there, and that results were available in 15 minutes.

Despite the rapid results, many federal health officials don’t recommend blood tests for diagnosing COVID-19, the deadly disease spawned by the novel coronavirus. That’s because it can take days, even weeks after someone has been infected to detect antibodies in the blood stream, causing some false-negative results.

Still, the tests are valuable in plotting the spread of the disease and helping health experts determine who has already fought it off. That could be especially helpful in places like Florida where nasal swab tests for the active virus were slow to get off the ground.