Change in COVID death count makes Florida look better. Lack of transparency makes it look worse

On Aug. 10, as COVID ravaged the state, Florida changed the way it compiles data on COVID deaths. It did so without telling the public — even though the change abruptly made it look as though the pandemic was, as one expert put it, in “artificial decline.”

A Miami Herald analysis published this week exposed the behind-the-scenes shift. Here’s what changed: Instead of counting each COVID death on the date it was recorded, as many states do for their daily COVID stats, the Florida Department of Health switched to a different methodology, counting each death on the date it actually occurred.

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There is often a significant lag — days or weeks — between the day a person succumbs to COVID and the day the death is officially recorded as a COVID death. Charting the deaths under the new methodology can make it look as though deaths are declining even when that’s not true.

Transparency matters: It shouldn’t be left to the public or scientists to guess what the real numbers are when more than a year’s worth of data as important as this changed overnight, as Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Emory University told the Herald. Yet that’s exactly what happened. The state may have had valid reasons for making the switch. But the public has a right — in this case, a critical right — to be informed every step of the way.

And there are big ramifications here — both in the actual numbers we use to gauge how bad the pandemic is and, more broadly, in the continuing erosion of trust in government.

In numbers, here’s an example of what the change means, according to the Herald story. Under the old system of record-keeping, Florida death data on Monday would have shown an average of 262 daily deaths reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the previous week. Under the new methodology, the state shows 46 “new deaths” per day in the previous seven days.

Where did all the other deaths go? They were added to totals in previous weeks because they actually occurred back then. That has the effect of pushing the bigger numbers into the rear-view mirror, over and over.

Poll numbers dip: But it isn’t even the re-calibrating of the numbers that’s the biggest problem here. It’s the lack of transparency. This is a state that is already infamous as a COVID hotspot, and the Florida health department has done this kind of thing before — for example, including, and then excluding, non-resident deaths in its total counts.

The lack of a full-on acknowledgment of this latest change smacks, once again, of a state government with a reflexive inability to own up to anything that might be construed as negative for the DeSantis administration.

Gov. Ron DeSantis already is seeing dropping poll numbers. A Quinnipiac University poll said that a majority of Floridians think COVID-19 in out of control and think the governor is wrong to oppose masks in schools. Those surveyed also indicated, 46% to 41%, that the governor is hurting efforts to slow COVID’s spread in the state. You’d think he might catch on that obfuscation in a time of COVID could turn out to be a deadly miscalculation for him politically.

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We’d like to suggest to Florida state government something radical: Trust the people, and tell them what’s going on.

— The Miami Herald

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