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Is your Florida ZIP Code a COVID-19 hot spot? Why it’s hard to know for sure.

Some cases counted toward a given ZIP Code are initially attributed to where a person was tested, not where they live.
A State Trooper stands ready to direct traffic at a drive thru COVID-19 testing sight Saturday, April 11, 2020, in the Flatbush neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A State Trooper stands ready to direct traffic at a drive thru COVID-19 testing sight Saturday, April 11, 2020, in the Flatbush neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) [ MARY ALTAFFER | AP ]
Published Apr. 12, 2020

Looking at the Florida Department of Health’s map of confirmed COVID-19 cases broken down by ZIP Code, it would be easy to assume that 33028 is a hot spot for the disease.

That ZIP Code represents a part of western Broward County almost entirely within the city of Pembroke Pines, plus slivers of Davie and Southwest Ranches. As of Sunday afternoon, the area had 435 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, more than any other ZIP Code in Florida.

But it would be wrong to say definitively that 33028 is the ZIP Code with the most residents diagnosed with COVID-19. That’s because, according to state health officials, some cases counted toward a given ZIP Code are initially attributed to where a person was tested, not where they live.

In other words, some of the 435 cases in the 33028 ZIP Code may be explained by the fact that there is a COVID-19 testing site located there: a drive-thru site at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines that opened March 20.

Positive cases “may be originally attributed to that site when first reported,” said Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health. “It is important to note that this may add to the total in the ZIP Code for C.B. Smith Park,” Moscoso said.

That data is “provisional,” a department spokesperson said Sunday, and is used “until confirmed residency information becomes available.” But nothing on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates how many cases in a given ZIP Code are attributed to something other than one’s home address.

Moscoso said the availability of testing for residents near a testing site could be contributing to higher case totals in that area. But according to the state’s city-level data, Pembroke Pines has just 41 residents who are confirmed positive for COVID-19 — far fewer than the 435 cases listed in 33028, which represents just one section of the city.

CONFLICTING GUIDANCE

The health department first added ZIP Code-level data to its COVID-19 dashboard April 3. In a question and answer page on its website, the department says the ZIP Code data is “ideally a representation of a COVID-19 positive person’s residence,” but that “there are instances where the ZIP Code may reflect the hospital where a person/case was admitted or tested.”

On a different question and answer page, the department says cases are “counted in a ZIP Code based on residential or mailing address, or by healthcare provider or lab address if other addresses are missing.”

The website says officials are “working to review these cases and appropriate them to the correct residential information.” On April 6, the Miami Herald asked the Florida Department of Health if it could provide a version of the ZIP Code data that’s based only on home addresses — stripping out any data based on the addresses of testing sites, hospitals or labs.

So far, the department has not provided any such data.

More refined data in other parts of the United States has helped the public and health experts understand how the novel coronavirus has spread and which communities have been hit the hardest. In New York, data released by health officials April 1 helped the New York Times conclude that people in low-income neighborhoods may be the most vulnerable.

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Even the city-level coronavirus data in Florida, which has been available in daily reports since mid-March, has drawn skepticism.

That data, state officials say, is “based on the cities of residence for cases in Florida residents based on the patient’s ZIP Code.” They add this caveat: “Note that city is not always received as part of the initial notification and may be missing while the case is being investigated.”

The Florida Department of Health didn’t immediately clarify whether the city-level data, like the ZIP Code-level data, could also be muddled by hospital or testing locations.

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