Florida residents kept out of loop on pandemic toll

State’s health department withheld data for 3 months

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19. - Photo by NIAID-RML via AP

For 105 days this summer, while covid-19 deaths soared across the state, Floridians had no idea how many of their neighbors were dying.

The Florida Department of Health knows how many people are dying in each county, but stopped telling the public on June 4. That's when state officials stopped releasing daily pandemic data, switched to weekly reports and started withholding data once available to the public.

Instead of including county deaths in its weekly reports, the state directed the public to find that information via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the CDC relied on Florida's online portal of covid-19 data -- which the state also took down in June. The CDC's tally of deaths for Florida went blank.

The number of people dying in each Florida county disappeared from June 4 through Sept. 17. Miscommunication has plagued the relationship between the state and federal agency since the start of the pandemic.

Now that data is available, and it shows how many people died in Tampa Bay as the delta variant tore through the state:

A total of 4,437 residents in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee, Polk, Hernando and Citrus counties died over four months. That's an average of 36 Tampa Bay residents dying each day from covid-related complications from June 5 to Oct. 7, according to the latest data.

"The issues Florida has had with data displayed by CDC has caused great confusion and allowed misinformation to perpetuate in our state," Florida Department of Health spokesperson Weesam Khoury wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. He also defended not sharing the data directly with the public.

"The Department of Health, an agency with approximately 12,000 experts including epidemiologists, is equipped to make decisions regarding the best and most understood data," Khoury said.

University of South Florida virologist Dr. Michael Teng countered that response: "That they are determining for us what is the 'best and most understood data' is paternalistic and contrary to the idea of transparency in government."

Last year, the Times reported that Florida leaders spent years whittling down the Department of Health to nearly 13,000 employees by 2019, leaving Florida with one of the lowest numbers of epidemiologists per residents in the country. The agency did not respond to a request for its current number of employees.

When the pandemic started last year, the Florida Department of Health produced detailed, daily reports about the toll covid-19 was inflicting. The state also posted that data to a website that the CDC, public health experts and media organizations like the Tampa Bay Times used to extract, analyze and share information about the pandemic.

But in June, Gov. Ron DeSantis' office declared that the pandemic had receded to the point where daily reports were no longer necessary. The state also took down its covid-19 data website, known as an online dashboard.

Instead, state officials decided to issue weekly reports. They also chose to withhold information that had been public, including: county-level vaccinations by race, age and gender; infected patients and staff in long-term health care facilities; and infections among students and school staff.

The state replaced its daily release of data with a nine-page document of statistics that it posts online every Friday, after 5 p.m. However, Florida still sends its data to the CDC, which relies on data from all 50 states to continually update an online covid-19 dashboard that the public can access.

The end result is that Florida's covid-19 data is harder to come by since June 4. It is the only state that releases data once a week. It releases less information to the public than it once did. It releases data in a way that makes it harder to access and analyze. And Florida leaves it to an outside agency, the CDC, to publicize data that it won't.

The same month that Florida officials changed the data policy, the highly transmissible delta variant emerged and infections took off again. Florida went from averaging about 1,000 infections a day at the start of June to more than 21,000 a day by August. Florida averaged a peak of 372 deaths a day on Sept. 1.

State officials have repeatedly defended the weekly reports, saying daily spikes in cases and deaths can be misinterpreted.

"To be fair, trends are more important than daily numbers, which can be skewed for any number of reasons," said Teng in response to the state. "But reporting data in weekly blocks isn't the best way of illustrating trends."