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Extreme policies, average statistics raise questions around Florida’s Covid-19 data

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Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, policy decisions in Florida have been among the most extreme — often among the first, the only or the few. Florida was one of the first states to roll back capacity restrictions on restaurants and bars and require schools to offer in-person learning. It is one of a few states that never implemented a mask mandate, blocking local jurisdictions from enforcing mask-related rules.

However, various Covid-19 data points peg the state right in the middle of the pack. According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, Florida has had the 27th most Covid-19 cases and deaths per capita out of the 50 states overall.

Florida’s case and death counts are lower than expected amid such loose mitigation measures, often drawing attention — and scrutiny — to the state’s official Covid-19 data.

In a peer-reviewed study in the American Journal of Public Health in March, researchers analyzed excess mortality data in Florida. One reason they specifically chose to analyze Florida was because it was one of the first states to lift Covid-19 restrictions.

Their research found that “the impact of COVID-19 on mortality is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest.” Nearly 5,000 excess deaths in Florida between March and September 2020 are “unexplained,” according to the study.

However, a CNN analysis of excess mortality data published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that’s another data point in which Florida is just about average.

Preliminary data from the CDC estimates that there have been between 538,000 and 656,000 excess deaths in the United States since February 2020. About 18.8% of those excess deaths are not related to Covid-19.

In Florida, about 19.8% of excess deaths are not related to Covid-19, according to CNN’s analysis of CDC data, in-line with the national average.

“If you had done this analysis in any state in the United States, you would have found a difference,” between total excess deaths and total Covid-19 deaths, Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist who publishes his own dashboard of Florida Covid-19 data, told CNN.

“I could be fooled at the end of day, but nothing stands out to me in the publicly available information I have that Florida is an anomaly.”

Mortality data collected by the CDC is a highly standardized process that has been refined over a century, Bob Anderson, chief mortality statistician for the CDC, told CNN.

“It’s not a new system that arrived with the virus,” he said. The CDC codes each death according to an international classification standard, based on information provided on each death certificate.

“Some states are more timely than others in reporting death certificates, but that’s the only difference.”

Last April, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics published guidance on certifying deaths due to Covid-19, and the CDC has also published guidance on how to diagnose Covid-19 deaths, though states are not required to follow it.

Data scrutiny

This isn’t the first time Florida’s official Covid-19 data has faced scrutiny.

In May, Rebekah Jones, a data scientist who helped create the state’s Covid-19 data dashboard, was fired from her role with the state health department. Jones claims she was fired after refusing to falsify state Covid-19 data, though state officials say it was due to a “repeated course of insubordination.”

Jones has harshly criticized Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic and filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

In October, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees announced that the state health department would perform additional reviews of all deaths. A recent review of deaths reported to the state had found that many had occurred more than a month earlier or had a significant lag between the time the individual tested positive for Covid-19 and when they died.

“Fatality data reported to the state consistently presents confusion and warrants a more rigorous review,” according to a statement from the Florida Department of Health.

A few months earlier, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission ruled that death certificates listing Covid-19 as the cause of death no longer required certification from a state medical examiners. This requirement had created a backlog of deaths certificates needing review in Florida, as in other states.

Despite these changes, Salemi says that Florida’s Covid-19 death data has been “incredibly stable,” with the slope of Covid-19 deaths consistently tracking with hospitalizations from five days earlier.

“In the scientific method, you assume nothing is going on until data proves the opposite,” he said. “The volume of information we’re getting on Covid-19 is a big challenge, and the data is not perfect. But Florida doesn’t stand out to me.”

For Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, transparency is a more pressing matter than accuracy.

“In my experience, there have been more occasions of holding back data than misleading data,” she told CNN. “The governor does have a habit of picking the most positive numbers and ignoring the bad numbers. He hand-selects data to fit a narrative rather than acknowledge the reality for people.”

“Access to even the basic tools to make decisions doesn’t seem like a priority for the governor,” she said.

An investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published in December found that the DeSantis administration worked to minimize bad news about the pandemic and spread misinformation, with some officials withholding crucial data about the spread of the virus.

The offices of Florida’s governor and surgeon general did not respond to CNN’s requests for interviews.

The health department does publish a Covid-19 data and surveillance dashboard, updated daily with cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state, along with various demographic and geographic details.

But at the very least, Eskamani says, politics have muddied the waters, making it hard for people to trust that they’re getting all the information they need to make their own educated decisions in the pandemic.

“It makes it hard to maintain order and trust with the public, and to help reassure people that the government is making decisions with their best interests in mind,” she said.

Article Topic Follows: Health

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