A theory that spread on Twitter and Reddit this week insinuating Florida health officials have masked the toll of the coronavirus by labeling thousands of deaths as caused by pneumonia is not supported by facts, said experts who study morbidity statistics.
Nevertheless, the idea has spread rapidly, appearing to originate with a couple of widely shared and poorly sourced screenshots. It was picked up and swallowed along partisan divisions. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and former Democratic presidential candidate, said, “This is really important. Florida is cooking the books on COVID-19 deaths.” And Gwen Graham, the one-time Florida congresswoman and former Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, chimed in with “Florida is undercounting #COVID19 cases and deaths.”
“Making these kinds of statements might get you a lot of attention on Twitter, but it does nothing to help people understand what’s really happening,” said Jeffrey Howard, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who worked on a study that showed excess deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. “People who aren’t trained and don’t have experience with assessing these data from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) can easily come away with very inaccurate conclusions.”
As of Friday, Florida had reported 2,495 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The health department has announced 54,497 cases. In the department’s online dashboard, it reports provisional data showing 1,385 deaths tied to influenza and pneumonia this year.
Social media posts highlighted supposed discrepancies between Florida’s usual count for pneumonia deaths at the beginning of a year, and reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the state in 2020. They alleged a difference of several thousand cases. But the Tampa Bay Times spoke to multiple researchers on Friday who said they have seen no evidence of such a drastic trend, and it was unclear exactly where the numbers in the posts came from. Federal health data is complicated, and the CDC has multiple portals with information that can be pulled in a variety of ways. Researchers spend years learning how to accurately parse the statistics.
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In an analysis he ran for the Times using publicly available data, Andrew Noymer, a professor who studies population health and disease prevention at the University of California Irvine, did not find major discrepancies between pneumonia and influenza deaths in early 2020 compared to recent years. He found about 1,485 such deaths in 2020, which was within a few hundred of the same period in any year since 2015.
As Florida progresses out of flu season, he said he expects the numbers to get higher, whereas in previous years, deaths would have trailed off.
That doesn’t mean the state’s coronavirus death toll is complete. Working with a University of South Florida researcher, the Times last week published a more complicated picture when it comes to excess deaths. That work found the pandemic might have already led to a toll between 17 percent and 58 percent higher than what had been reported.
Physicians from a hospital or the medical examiner’s office certify a person’s official cause of death, said Dr. Shamarial Roberson, deputy secretary for health in the Florida Department of Health. State officials, she said, gather data from that information.
Some online sources, she said, deal with a single underlying cause of death while others involve multiple causes, including those listed as contributing factors. Some users on social media have replied to the original posts suggesting people were relying on incomparable data sets.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said the outcry was fueled by partisanship.
“It is unfortunate that certain individuals are weaponizing this pandemic to make a political point,” she wrote in a statement. “While the left was obsessing over Florida’s beaches in early March, they chose to ignore the effectiveness of Governor DeSantis’ orders prohibiting visitors to nursing homes and long-term care facilities while banning the return of COVID-positive patients to those facilities. .... Governor DeSantis’ science-based, measured approach got it right and lives were saved. This is something deniers cannot change.”
Not all the doubt over Florida’s coronavirus numbers can be tied to disbelief over the state’s avoidance of modelers’ worst expectations. This month, a Department of Health employee who was overseeing the state’s online data dashboard said she was forced to resign and had been pressured to manipulate data to support a plan to begin reopening businesses and public spaces. Ferré said the woman had been insubordinate; the health department has denied manipulating data.
Officials have also apparently clashed with Florida’s medical examiners, who said they had been told not to report information on deaths from the coronavirus that they believed was public. The medical examiners had been sharing higher death totals than the Department of Health.
Those scenarios likely offered fuel for the online rumors, but Howard said the reality is Americans simply will not know the real toll of the pandemic for years.
“We’re basically in the middle of the fog of war right now because we’re in this mass traumatic event that’s unfolding,” said Howard, the University of Texas at San Antonio professor. Excess deaths will occur not just from the disease but from the way of life it has created. “The other part of it is the fear, the isolation, the economic uncertainty that is produced by this event also have negative health impacts, and those negative health impacts will also ripple through the system.”
People, he said, frequently die from multiple causes. It’s hard to attribute a death to just a single reason. Some Floridians might be avoiding needed medical attention out of fear, he said, and then they could die of an untreated illness or condition like heart disease.
“Getting into the cause-specific rates right now is very difficult,” said Mark Hayward, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied mortality. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a resource and risk issue. We want to keep people’s focus on that and not throwing political bombs at each other.”
Times staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Rebecca Woolington contributed to this report.
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