TALLAHASSEE — For months, Thomas Hladish, a research scientist at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, asked the Florida Department of Health to let him use information from thousands of contact tracers the state had hired to interview Floridians who tested positive for COVID-19.
He and his colleagues wanted to better understand where transmission was occurring in Florida so officials could put more effective policies in place.
But Hladish, who was on the Florida Department of Health’s payroll for part of last year building statistical forecasting models about the disease, was stonewalled. He was then told not to even acknowledge the state had a set of data that showed when and where people tested negative for COVID-19 in Florida.
“They said, if it was brought to the attention of anyone that the data set exists, then the state has to release it,’' Hladish recalled last week. “It was presented to me that I should not acknowledge they have that data.”
As Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to give his third State of the State speech on Tuesday when lawmakers convene for their annual 60-day session, many open government advocates say the state of Florida’s sunshine laws are darker this year because of the governor’s selective release of information and his attempt at times to actively shield critical details about the depths of the crisis from the public.
“This administration doesn’t want to put negative information out there,’' said Pamela C. Marsh, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “If there’s good news, we’ll share it, and if there’s bad news, we’ll hold onto it for a while until we are pushed and shoved to release it.”
Most of the public isn’t worried about people testing negative for COVID-19, but for researchers that data is an essential tool to understanding the path of the virus as it courses through Florida, killing more than 30,000 and infecting more than 1.9 million people.
“They’re definitely not releasing everything,’' Hladish said last week. “It has a huge impact on scientists’ ability to understand what’s going on.”
The Times/Herald interviewed more than two dozen researchers, journalists and legislators about their experience with open records in the last year and the common conclusion was: Florida health officials are reluctant to release new data related to COVID-19 that contradicts the governor’s upbeat narrative and they frequently withhold information until they are either threatened with a lawsuit, or convinced the trend lines have improved.
In addition to releasing only selective health data, the state has withheld millions of dollars in purchase orders signed by the state with vendors. Legislators also complained about the lack of transparency relating to how the state has spent nearly $5 billion in federal funds and the botched unemployment compensation system that took months to get money to eligible Floridians.
Marsh said the motive for the secrecy “comes down to politics.”
Litigation and struggle
DeSantis has passed the midpoint in his four-year term and is positioning himself for re-election in 2022. Many believe he also hopes to run for president in 2024, and his approach to the coronavirus has been shaped by both politics and unfounded scientific theories advanced by former President Donald Trump.
He spent much of the summer and fall helping engineer Trump’s win in Florida, playing up his own response to the virus and downplaying the summer surge in Florida’s COVID caseload.
“I think we’re at a low point as far as access to public information in this state,’' said Ben Wilcox of Integrity Florida, a non-profit research organization focusing on government accountability. “It was bad under Gov. [Rick] Scott, but I would argue it’s gotten worse under Gov. DeSantis.”
Wilcox said his organization often submits public records requests to the governor and his agencies to get basic information “that you would think would be online anyway but isn’t.”
“There’s no expectation they are going to be fulfilled in a timely manner,’' Wilcox said. “We get hit with fees for copying records, even though we request them in electronic form. There’s the slow-walking of public records requests, and it’s almost as if they hope we will just forget about it.”
Marsh, of the First Amendment Foundation, has been involved in helping news organizations and non-profit advocacy organizations obtain medical examiners’ reports on COVID-19 deaths and Department of Health reports on COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, prisons, daycare centers and hospitals. They have sought data on testing, personal protective equipment and copies of contracts and purchasing. The latest quest for information has been to get the DeSantis administration to completely release details on vaccine distribution.
“We have had to litigate and struggle every step of the way to get every piece of data we’ve ever gotten,’' Marsh said, adding that in a handful of those cases, it took the threat or filing of a lawsuit to force the administration to comply.
Florida’s landmark public records law doesn’t allow the state to decide which data set is public and which is not. Instead, the law states: “It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person.”
DeSantis, who rarely gives interviews to reporters from Florida news outlets and limits his questions at news conferences, has touted his “swift and decisive action to protect our state’s most vulnerable populations, including those over the age of 65” and said those early actions “saved thousands of lives and have inspired similar policies in other states and at the federal level.”
Although the governor would not grant the Times/Herald an interview to discuss his approach to the Florida’s Sunshine law, his spokesperson, Meredith Beatrice, responded: “Florida has been one of the most transparent states in the nation during the COVID-19 public health emergency,’' she said.
“Executive agencies provide daily updates regarding public health information, including the COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard through the Florida Department of Health; daily COVID-19 vaccination reports (both statewide and county level); and (the Agency for Health Care Administration’s) Hospital Bed Capacity Dashboard. Additionally, regular updates regarding reemployment claims are made available through (Department of Economic Opportunity’s) Reemployment Assistance Claims Dashboard.”
Some say Florida is open about COVID data
Not everyone is unhappy with Florida’s COVID-19 data release.
Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, commends the Florida Department of Health for “releasing a lot of data that people like me can use to make sense of cases, testing, hospitalizations, deaths, and vaccines.”
But rather than rely on the data visualizations provided on the state dashboard, which many researchers consider incomplete and therefore misleading, Salemi has produced his own Florida COVID-19 Dashboard, using numbers augmented by federal data.
One glaring example of where the failure to release records may have shaped public policy is in the area of contact tracing.
According to the Florida Department of Health, the state’s contact tracing program uses public health case investigators to interview people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to see who else they may have exposed with the virus. Contact tracers then create a list of people they’ve been in contact with and attempt to reach them to prevent further spread.
Although many states do not have a good record of releasing contact tracing data, an NPR survey found that 14 states make contact tracing information public. By contrast, Florida’s program has been particularly opaque.
No contact tracing data
For months, the Times/Herald and other news outlets have made repeated requests for basic information about the contact tracing program. Reporters have asked how many contact tracers have been hired, the contact rates and success rates, and have asked for details about findings.
With every request, the Florida Department of Health has refused to release any of the documents, saying only the requests “have been received.”
Hladish said researchers have been stymied as well. Since April, he has been asking for aggregated contact tracing data to understand where transmission was occurring, how transmission was changing as the state reopened businesses, and to provide feedback on what policies were working.
The goal, the UF researcher said, was to put a contact tracing program in place that could quickly inform policy makers about whether the decisions to reopen businesses, restaurants and gyms were exacerbating the spread of the virus or having an imperceptible impact.
“I was told the people in charge of the contact tracing strategy didn’t have time to talk to me,’' Hladish said last week. He said that when he pressed them to explain why during conference calls with the team at the Department of Health, “I was shot down.”
Other states do better
Other states had used contact tracing data to impose a more nuanced approach to lockdowns, tailoring restrictions to match outbreaks, or requiring restaurants to keep a tally of customers so they could be reached more easily to prevent the spread of the infection.
In Washington, D.C., and Louisiana, for example, health officials list the settings where outbreaks are happening and how many cases are arising from those outbreaks. And in Maryland, the state web site provide detailed reports on contact tracing results, even providing testimonials from people who have been interviewed to overcome the mistrust arising from people who don’t want to talk to the contact tracers.
The experience in those states, however, may also explain why DeSantis didn’t want the information collected or publicly released in Florida because it may have increased pressure on him to close down restaurants, fitness clubs or other businesses.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzner, for example, said that the state’s contact tracing data, along with scientific studies, led him to shut down indoor dining in October, the Chicago Tribune reported.
When the Miami Herald obtained a copy of Miami-Dade County’s contact tracing results for September and October, the data showed that despite the governor’s claims that his policies had successfully protected the elderly, cases among that group rose 150 percent in Florida and investigators reached only half of the people ages 65 and up who had been exposed to the virus.
Hladish said he and other researchers wanted the contact tracing detail to know if “poor people — who may not have medical insurance and may be wary about what their expenses are going to be if they show up with symptoms at a hospital — were not getting tested at the same rate as others.”
The goal was to try to shape policy for better outreach to those communities and for months he tried to get the data, he said.
“I was told (the Florida Department of Health) was interested in this topic, but I wasn’t able to get an answer about whether I was allowed to use that data,’' he said.
Creating new ‘death narrative’
Contrast Hladish’s experience to that of Jennifer Cabrera, an electrical engineer and conservative blogger.
For months, academics and public health experts had been trying to view death certificates that until Aug. 14 had been released by county medical examiners but the state would not make them available.
Then, in October, the governor’s office noticed a post Cabrera had made that echoed the narrative of then-President Trump and the governor: that scientists are blowing COVID-19 deaths out of proportion and, in Florida, the state may be over-counting COVID-19 deaths.
The governor’s office then leaked a month’s worth of COVID-19 death certificates to Cabrera, and she wrote a post on her blog arguing that some people died with COVID-19 but not from COVID-19.
“We can tell you definitively that Florida is counting deaths that were not directly caused by COVID-19,” she wrote.
It was a meaningless distinction, according to public health experts who spoke to the Miami Herald. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that COVID-19 deaths are likely being under counted, not over counted, and people suffering from COVID-19, who died from other causes, in most cases should be counted as a coronavirus death.
Then, there was the mysterious gap in COVID-19 reporting deaths in the days before the November election. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that with minor exceptions, Florida stopped including long-backlogged deaths in its daily counts on Oct. 24, 10 days before the Nov. 3 election, and resumed regular reporting of them on Nov. 17. Jason Mahon, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“You’re not supposed to be able to manipulate public records so that it matches the way you want to politically spin a situation like COVID,’' said Wilcox of Integrity Florida. “You at least should make the public records available, and then try to spin it. But unless the public has the basic information, it’s really dangerous.”
Hladish said he learned the reason his Department of Health colleague firmly rejected his request for the contact tracing detail was because “he had proposed the same thing and been told by someone higher up that ‘when they wanted his opinion, they would ask for it’.”
“That told me I’m not out in left field about the value of this data and the issue is someone higher up — for reasons that are completely unclear to me — is not going to use this data for a nuanced strategy,’' Hladish said. “We are going to stick to the sledgehammer approach to lockdowns.”
‘Better have damn good reason’
Sharyn Smith, the former chief judge at the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings who helped draft the 1976 Sunshine law relating to financial disclosure, said the public records provisions in the law were intended to be broad, and exceptions difficult to obtain.
“It’s all about the public having access to accurate information to be able to make informed decisions,’' Smith said last week. “If you’re going to deny them access to information, you better have a damn good reason for doing it because this is their information. It belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to any politician. "
Any attempt to shield information from the public “that could affect their ability to make the best decision possible, is a threat to our democracy,’ Smith added. “That’s how we saw it.”
For their part, the Republican leaders who control Florida’s Legislature have been content to let DeSantis make all the decisions about what information is being released under Florida’s public records laws during the pandemic, and when.
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Sarasota Republican and the Senate Rules Committee chair said it “would be my druthers to provide the information that you are legally obligated to provide and to do it as expeditiously as possible”.
But, for now, she added: “I’m giving the governor the benefit of the doubt.”
Tampa Bay Times reporter Allison Ross contributed to this report.
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