As of Aug. 26, 2021 Florida had 43,979 COVID-19-related deaths. How many of the Floridians who have succumbed to the deadly virus were from Okeechobee County, Glades County, Palm Beach County, Collier County, Martin County or Hendry County? That information is currently not available, despite Freedom of Information requests sent to the Florida Department of Health.
Earlier in the pandemic, the daily updates on numbers of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths by county were updated on Florida’s online COVID-19 dashboard daily. In June, that changed. A weekly state report is released on Fridays, but the information on deaths is not broken down by county. Since the increase in covid cases and deaths with the spread of the delta variant this summer, Floridians are asking for more local data.
At a Sept. 1 press conference in Fort Myers, Gov. Ron DeSantis was quizzed about providing localized data and seemed responsive. “I will talk about it. I know they do the weekly report with everything. I’ll drill down, see kind of what it is at the county level. But obviously I think that would be something that would be appropriate. Clearly, if you look at the county-level hospitalization data, the hospitalization spike, you unfortunately will usually see mortality as a result of that. When hospitalizations are declining, fortunately you’ll start to see the mortality decline as well,” he said.
Some media have questioned the way even the state data has been released.
The Aug. 31 story in the Miami Herald alleged, “Florida changed its COVID-19 data, creating an ‘artificial decline’ in recent deaths.” The article explained: “The dramatic difference is due to a small change in the fine print. Until three weeks ago, data collected by DOH and published on the CDC website counted deaths by the date they were recorded — a common method for producing daily stats used by most states. On Aug. 10, Florida switched its methodology and, along with just a handful of other states, began to tally new deaths by the date the person died.
“If you chart deaths by Florida’s new method, based on date of death, it will generally appear — even during a spike like the present — that deaths are on a recent downslope. That’s because it takes time for deaths to be evaluated and death certificates processed. When those deaths finally are tallied, they are assigned to the actual date of death — creating a spike where there once existed a downslope and moving the downslope forward in time.”
On Aug. 31, the Florida Department of Health responded to that story with a press release stating, “Updating already provisional data does not create an ‘artificial decline,’ nor does it distort the data. These are the deaths as they occurred by date. The fact that these data are provisional is made clear by both DOH reports and the data displayed by the CDC. This ensures that the most accurate data are provided to the public. As the Miami Herald article reported, many other states report COVID-19 deaths the same way Florida does.
“This month, the department worked to develop a procedural improvement with CDC to ensure the most accurate data is consistently provided to the public. The department has reported deaths by date of death to the CDC since March. This information comes from numerous sources, including labs, medical examiners, hospitals, and physicians. All deaths are required to be filed with the Department’s Bureau of Vital Statistics to ensure verification and accuracy. This reporting process is epidemiologically sound and is not unique to COVID-19.”