After weeks of withholding it from public disclosure, state officials on Wednesday released the list of coronavirus deaths being compiled by Florida’s medical examiners.
But the document was redacted to remove the probable cause of death and the description of each case.
The omissions make the list meaningless, said Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission.
“You have to take the word from the government that these are deaths related to COVID-19,” said Nelson, who is also the chief medical examiner for Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.
“It loses transparency,” he said.
The list never included the names of the dead, which many experts and medical examiners have said is also public in Florida.
The move came several hours after attorneys for a coalition of media organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times, sent a letter demanding the state release the information.
As of early last month, the list was being released as it was updated. The Times used it to report on April 11 that the state’s official count of deaths, produced by the Florida Department of Health, was about 10 percent lower than the medical examiners’ count.
After the Times story was published, health department officials called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which houses the medical examiners’ commission, the Times reported last week.
After that, the Department of Law Enforcement decided to redact the list.
The version released Wednesday showed the state’s count is now higher than the medical examiners’.
It was unclear why — especially given the mechanics of how coronavirus deaths are being tracked.
Under Florida law, medical examiners are responsible for certifying every coronavirus death in the state. The health department has been verifying deaths independently by having epidemiologists follow up on every case.
What’s more, the health department has said it is only including Florida residents in its count, although after the Times’ report it began posting some data on non-resident deaths in feeds online.
The medical examiners are counting anyone who died in Florida, including snowbirds and visitors.
“By their own admission, they are not counting every Florida death,” Nelson said. “I’m surprised that they are ahead.”
The state’s official count is now 3.3 percent higher than the medical examiners’. The data feed that includes non-resident deaths shows a count that is 7.8 percent higher.
After this story was published online, state health department spokesman Alberto Moscoso explained the discrepancy by saying the health department “reports cases where the individual tested positive for COVID-19 and subsequently died, while Medical Examiners report deaths that they have directly attributed to COVID-19.”
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"For example, if an individual tests positive for COVID-19 and then dies as a result of an accident, that case would be included in the Department’s list of deaths associated with COVID-19," he said.
He added: “It is not true that deaths have been hidden.”
It was also unclear why state officials needed 16 days to redact the list. They drew a black box over two of the columns and said the list was generated five hours before it was released.
In withholding those columns, state Department of Law Enforcement officials cited two state laws that exempt certain records from public disclosure. One of the laws exempts the cause of death on death certificates. The other exempts patient records kept by hospitals.
In the letter demanding the records be made public, Carol Jean LoCicero, an attorney for the coalition of media organizations, said no redaction was necessary “because the list contains only public information.” LoCicero also represents the Times.
Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation, said neither of the exemptions cited by the state applies to medical examiners’ records.
“Every exemption under the public records law has to be strictly construed and narrowly applied,” she said. “We are not talking about death certificates. … We are not talking about patient records.”
Petersen pointed out that other state agencies have withheld coronavirus-related information — most prominently the names of which nursing homes had infections, which wasn’t released until the consortium of news organizations moved to sue.
“The governor and his administration are obfuscating,” she said. “They are withholding critically important information from the public.”
Medical examiners in Florida have been compiling a list of deaths in every statewide emergency since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The state’s 22 offices send information on their investigations to the Medical Examiners Commission to be included on a master list.
Nelson said the lists have always been made available to the public without redactions.
Both the health department and the law enforcement department acknowledged having conferred on privacy concerns related to the coronavirus list. But Moscoso said the health department didn’t give any formal direction.
Last month, the Miami Herald reported that the health department had reached out to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Office and asked it to withhold its death records from the media. The Miami-Dade County attorney released the records anyway, saying she believed they were public records.
Through a series of public records requests last week, Times reporters were able to obtain spreadsheets detailing coronavirus deaths or copies of the investigative reports from 18 of Florida’s 22 medical examiner offices. Those records included the names of the dead.
Nelson pointed out that the Medical Examiners Commission list provided less information than that.
“Individual offices can provide the names of the dead but this silly Excel spreadsheet is somehow sacrosanct?” he said. “It boggles my mind.”
Mark Caramanica, an attorney representing the coalition of news organizations, said his office was “pleased FDLE released this critical information” but is “reviewing (the state’s) continued withholding of certain portions of the database that have been previously made public.”
“Floridians deserve maximum transparency about COVID-19 deaths in our state,” he said.
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