Florida medical examiners were releasing coronavirus death data. The state made them stop.

When the medical examiners’ list was available, it showed more deaths than the state’s count.
Emergency personnel prepare to transport a patient by ambulance from the Freedom Square Seminole Nursing Pavilion in April. At least eight residents of the Seminole retirement community have died from the novel coronavirus.
Emergency personnel prepare to transport a patient by ambulance from the Freedom Square Seminole Nursing Pavilion in April. At least eight residents of the Seminole retirement community have died from the novel coronavirus. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 29, 2020|Updated April 29, 2020

State officials have stopped releasing the list of coronavirus deaths being compiled by Florida’s medical examiners, which has at times shown a higher death toll than the state’s published count.

The list had previously been released in real time by the state Medical Examiners Commission. But earlier this month, after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the medical examiners’ death count was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health, state officials said the list needed to be reviewed and possibly redacted.

Related: Florida’s count of coronavirus deaths is missing some cases

They’ve now been withholding it for nine days, without providing any of the information or specifying what they plan to remove.

Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission, said the change in policy came after the state health department intervened.

The medical examiners’ list does not include names. But it provides demographic information, probable cause of death and case summaries with information about each person’s medical and travel history.

Nelson — who is also the medical examiner for Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties — said state officials told him they plan to remove causes of death and case descriptions. Without that information, the list is meaningless, he said.

Nelson said he believes the entirety of the list is public information — a stance supported by Florida public records experts.

“This is no different than any other public record we deal with,” Nelson said. “It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers have a right to know.”

The health department acknowledged that it “participated in conference calls” with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which provides administrative support to the Medical Examiners Commission. The topic was “privacy concerns for the individuals that passed away related to COVID-19,” health department spokesman Alberto Moscoso said.

Moscoso said the health department didn’t provide a formal legal opinion.

The agency has attempted at least once to block information about deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, from becoming public.

Last month, it tried to persuade the medical examiner’s office in Miami-Dade County to restrict access to its death records, according to the Miami Herald and correspondence between the two agencies obtained by the Times.

The county released the records, which include the names of those who died, anyway.

Locally, Hillsborough County refused for weeks to release its records, citing the same exemption as the state health department. But on Tuesday, after repeated questions from the Times, county officials released a list of people who had died from the virus.

Moscoso declined to say if the state health department had consulted with Hillsborough or any other county.

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Other Florida medical examiner offices have been making the information public, including the offices that cover Pinellas and Pasco counties; Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties; Orange and Osceola counties; and Broward county.

The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner used to provide a spreadsheet of its COVID-related deaths, but was directed last week by county attorneys to stop releasing it, that office’s operations manager, Paul Petrino, told the Times.

Petrino said he wasn’t sure what prompted the attorneys to question whether the information was public.

“I was actually taken aback when they called us,” said Petrino, adding that the office views the release of information as an important part in helping the public understand the unfolding epidemic.

“I’d hate to see anything hinder that,” he said. “Hopefully, it won’t.”

Palm Beach County Attorney Denise Marie Nieman declined to answer specific questions about why the county stopped releasing the information, saying that the matter was under review.

The moves to withhold information comes at a sensitive moment for state leaders. Florida’s coronavirus death toll is continuing to rise and state officials have begun talks about when and how to start reopening.

The health department didn’t begin releasing information on which nursing homes have had infections until a consortium of news organizations, including the Herald and the Times, moved to sue for the information. The news organizations filed a lawsuit Monday seeking additional records.

Transparency advocates, public health experts and medical examiners say comprehensive information about deaths is critical to understanding the epidemic’s path and impact.

Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation, said the interactions between the health department and medical examiners seemed to fit a troubling pattern.

“It’s just shocking to me the level of interference,” Petersen said.

Under Florida law, the state’s 22 medical examiner officers are responsible for investigating and certifying all COVID-related deaths. They have been sending detailed information about each case to the state Medical Examiners Commission for inclusion on a central list.

Nelson said medical examiners have been keeping such lists during every state emergency since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They have always been made public, he added.

But the state health department has kept its own count of coronavirus deaths and published it to an online dashboard. Its figure has been lower than the medical examiners’ figure.

A spokesperson for the health department’s Hillsborough County office said a lag in reporting accounts for some of the difference. The health department is also excluding some snowbirds and other seasonal residents, along with visitors who died in Florida, from its count. The medical examiners are including anyone who died in Florida.

As the death toll has climbed in Florida, the difference between the two counts has become controversial.

Earlier this month, after the Times report, Florida’s Congressional Democrats wrote Gov. Ron DeSantis a letter expressing concern over “inconsistencies between COVID-19 death tracking methods used by the Florida Department of Health and county medical examiners.”

The lawmakers asked for a “detailed explanation of the public health justification” for tracking cases among Florida residents and nonresidents separately.

“We ask that you work with the Department of Health and county medical examiners to ensure that COVID-19 cases are detected and reported accurately,” they wrote.

Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for the governor, said her office had not seen the letter. But she said the health department is classifying deaths based on an individual’s legal residence to avoid double counting by states.

Ferré said Florida had been “hailed as an exemplary model of reporting for COVID-19.”

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