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Florida still not reporting daily coronavirus hospital admissions

The number of people entering hospitals each day for COVID-19 is key data that public health experts monitor to measure the potential strain on hospital systems.

MIAMI — Under pressure last week as COVID-19 hospitalizations soared in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said the state would start reporting daily hospitalization data for all 67 counties.

DeSantis on Tuesday, however, refused to address the fact that the state has yet to make good on its promise when asked by a Miami Herald reporter.

“Obviously not everything is presented in this report but just an unbelievable amount of data is available,” DeSantis said at an indoor press conference held at Florida’s 12th COVID-only nursing facility near Miami International Airport.

He did not respond to a follow-up question from CNN correspondent Rosa Flores as to why the state does not publish daily hospitalization data.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who sat next to DeSantis at the Tuesday event, ordered hospitals to report patient admissions, ICU capacity, ventilator inventory and other data every day starting on April 4. The number of people entering hospitals each day for COVID-19 is key data that public health experts monitor to measure the potential strain on hospital systems and the seriousness of the disease’s resurgence.

Florida is an outlier among states in not reporting the number of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Instead, the Agency for Health Care Administration reports daily hospital bed capacity while the state Department of Health reports the total number of patients admitted to hospitals during the course of the pandemic, not the number of people actively in a hospital at a given time.

Lots of other data

At the press conference, DeSantis pointed to the health department’s daily report, which he had printed out in front of him, instead of addressing why state agencies haven’t yet released the data.

“They have so much raw data on there,” he said, flipping through the papers. “It’s really incredible ... people do the charts and the graphs and everything. That’s all available for folks and they are able to do it.”

When asked by the Miami Herald earlier this week, the governor’s office said it still planned to publicly report the data, but would not specify a timeline. Public health officials and experts have told the Herald that the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration possesses the data, but the agency has not responded to requests to provide it.

State health department officials have told researchers that the department does not track current hospitalizations.

Opening a shuttered facility

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat, said he suspects the state is not releasing the data because of possibly showing a discrepancy in the numbers already reported in Miami-Dade County.

“It’s these games with public records. They won’t release it unless there’s public pressure or a lawsuit filed. It’s infuriating,” said Rodríguez, who attended the press conference. “I suspect that one of the concerns is that we are going to see a divergence in numbers. That’s what I think.”

The press conference was held at the once-shuttered Miami Medical Center, which is owned by Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and had been closed since October 2017. It is now being repurposed as a place to treat COVID patients who are stable enough to leave a hospital but still too contagious to return to a long-term care facility, a population hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths in Florida.

State officials originally planned to open the Miami facility, also formerly known as Pan American Hospital, as a dedicated facility for COVID-positive patients in April but the state canceled the original $42 million-a-month arrangement when hospitals were able to cope with the infection numbers.

The facility, when fully functioning, can serve up to 150 patients. There are currently 18 COVID-positive patients either at or in the process of begin transferred to the facility, where the press conference was held. Reporters were screened upon entering but were not told that there were COVID-positive patients in the building. Masked medical personnel walked back and forth behind reporters, some wearing head coverings and gowns.

The press conference was held in a narrow corridor toward the front of the building without consideration for social distancing, which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control to stop the spread of the highly infectious disease.

DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, told the Miami Herald that the patients were on a separate floor and enter through an ambulance bay, not the door used by members of the press and other attendees. When asked if she was concerned about holding a press conference in a dedicated COVID-19 facility, she said: “It is a hospital, do not believe it has been anything else.”

DeSantis did not wear a mask while speaking.

Other facilities in Escambia, Leon, Polk, Charlotte, Lee, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Brevard and Broward counties are dedicated exclusively to COVID-19 cases and can accommodate up to 750 patients.

Florida’s Department of Health on Tuesday confirmed 7,347 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 213,794.

Of those, 2,066 new cases were reported in Miami-Dade County, bringing the county’s total to 51,058 known cases as officials prepare to roll back reopenings such as restaurants because of the increasing case number.

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas and Herald staff writers Ben Conarck and Daniel Chang contributed to this report.

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