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Tampa Bay has its first coronavirus death. This time, the state says it’s for real.

A 67-year-old Pinellas County man has died. The state has confirmed more than 1,400 cases, with Hillsborough nearing 100.
Coronavirus prevention flyers attached to a fence of the town's community center are shown, Saturday, March 21, 2020, in Surfside, Fla. Miami-Dade County's mayor ordered all beaches, parks and "non-essential" commercial and retail businesses closed Thursday because of the new coronavirus pandemic. [WILFREDO LEE | AP]

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Tampa Bay health officials confirmed the area’s first coronavirus-related death Tuesday, a 67-year-old Pinellas County man, marking another advance in the pandemic’s progression through Florida.

The news came after two errors in the past week, wherein state leaders announced disease-related deaths locally, then retracted the reports.

The man died Monday, according to health officials. The state did not note any relevant travel history or contact with another confirmed case. No other details were available, including underlying health issues. The death, along with another in Lee County, would bring Florida’s toll to 20.

With Tuesday evening’s update, the reported coronavirus case total in Florida is 1,467. Hillsborough County jumped the most locally by adding 20, and Pinellas increased by four cases since Monday evening.

Known Hillsborough cases now total 95. Pinellas is up to 45. Elsewhere in Tampa Bay, little changed. Pasco now reports 16; and Hernando seven. To the south, Manatee County has 16 cases and one death, a 70-year-old man. The numbers include residents and visitors diagnosed in Florida as well as a handful of Floridians tested out of state. Of the Florida residents known to have coronavirus, the state said, at least 253 have required hospitalization.

But the state’s figures are constantly shifting. Officials say most data on coronavirus are provisional, subject to change as epidemiologists investigate patients and the roots of each case. The missteps, however, show how the public health system has struggled to meet the challenge of an unprecedented pandemic.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and communications specialists say it’s important for state leaders to build public trust by providing accurate information, Florida has stumbled through sometimes confusing or inaccurate updates.

The Florida Department of Health “strives to provide real information in real-time to avoid any appearance of withholding information,” said Jason Mahon, a spokesman for the Division of Emergency Management, in an email Tuesday. Officials report updates from certified labs, and “there may be occasional inconsistencies.” He said reports are pulled twice daily “through a database that tracks infectious diseases statewide.”

Last Friday, health officials reported a man in Pasco had died. A little more than an hour later, the Florida Department of Health in Pasco County — which sits below the state agency — issued a news release through the local sheriff’s office saying the report was incorrect, blaming an “error in data input.”

“We apologize for the error and will continue to keep you informed,” the county-level officials wrote.

Later, the state issued its own correction but did not explain the error.

Then it happened again.

On Monday night, the state’s coronavirus dashboard updated to show one death of an unidentified person in Pinellas. Hours later, that number returned to zero. The Department of Health did not provide a formal correction.

The next day, the Pinellas department sent an alert to reporters about its first, actual, confirmed death, not connected to Monday’s mistaken report. Spokeswoman Maggie Hall said county-level officials chose to release the information quickly.

“We wanted to give our community a heads up,” she said. The number appeared in a state report shortly before 7 p.m.

That meant that for hours, the Pinellas death toll remained at zero online.

The state has changed its process for reporting information on coronavirus many times since the first cases were announced March 1. Numbers have gone from being sporadically updated on a state website to a more advanced dashboard, which is supposed to be updated daily at roughly 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Since last Tuesday, the format for the data has changed eight times.

“As we gather more data we are able to provide more information for this new disease,” said Mahon, the emergency management spokesman.

The Tampa Bay Times has frequently scraped the state’s data, and those records show nine updates rolling back the number of cases previously reported, along with four lowering the number of deaths. A log of individual cases, sent by email twice daily, has also seen certain patient demographics fluctuate. For instance, the state reported that in Palm Beach County, a 6-year-old boy was infected. Now it says that child is a girl.

“When results are first put into the system, they may include discrepancies on age, gender, county, travel history or other information,” Mahon said. “It is during the epidemiological investigation that the state is able to determine the facts of each case.”

A fragmented public health approach starting at the federal level has left the coronavirus response largely in the hands of governors. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has encouraged local control, leading to a disparate approach tailored by counties and cities.

Much like in a hurricane, medical examiners are responsible for certifying every death related to the pandemic, said Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office. That sets up a clear reporting chain, to make sure information is thorough and accurate. The local medical examiner sends data to a state commission, which reports it to the appropriate executive agency.

But that did not happen before the state mistakenly reported deaths in Pasco and Pinellas. Pellan said he learned of the Pasco report from a Times story, and on Monday, he received a call from Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, who asked if the Medical Examiner’s Office had reported any deaths unbeknownst to local health officials.

“Of course, I told him no,” Pellan said.

It can take as little as an hour for the medical examiner to certify a coronavirus-related death. Pellan said if a person has already tested positive for COVID-19, an investigator will simply read over the paperwork before making a determination. In cases where the deceased showed symptoms or might have been exposed but was not formally diagnosed, he said, the office works with hospital doctors on tests or takes their own samples to send off for confirmation.

Pellan said his investigators had been involved in testing about 12 cases this month.

As Florida moves through the “upcurve” of the pandemic, recording more cases every day, transparency from public leaders is critical, said Dr. Marc J. Yacht, the retired former leader of the Department of Health in Pasco County.

Especially frustrating, he said, are inconsistencies and tension between President Donald Trump and public health leaders.

“I don’t think that helps settle nerves,” Yacht said.

He said DeSantis was cooperating with public health leaders and echoing their warnings, but people need a consistent, reliable message.

“If there's a concern about the accuracy of what we're being told, that's going to make the population very distrustful of government and its leaders,” he said.

Times staff writer Eli Murray contributed to this report.

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