PolitiFact: Misreported test data in Orlando does not explain Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak

Some small labs have been reporting only positive results to the department, which says it is working with those labs to report all results.
Guests get their temperature taken as they arrive to attend the official re-opening day of Epcot at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista on Wednesday. All four of Disney's Florida parks are now open.
Guests get their temperature taken as they arrive to attend the official re-opening day of Epcot at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista on Wednesday. All four of Disney's Florida parks are now open. [ JOE BURBANK | AP ]
Published July 16, 2020|Updated July 16, 2020

One theory ricocheting around social media blames Florida’s large coronavirus outbreak on mistakes in case reporting.

The claim was made by internet prankster Joey Saladino, who says he creates content "to expose the Democrats and MSM," or mainstream media. The onetime candidate for a New York City congressional seat has 156,000 followers on Facebook.

His July 14 Facebook post said (typos included): “The Flordia Covid-19 Outbreak is being EXPOSED as a HOAX!” It included an image of a tweet he posted on Twitter, which claimed:

“BREAKING: Orlando Health admits their Covid-19 numbers are wrong, saying it shows 98% positive, but it’s actually 9.4%. This explains the ‘outbreak’ in Flordia.”

One commenter wrote: "I knew it!"

Other Facebook users made similar claims, saying for example that 33 Florida labs reported “98% positivity instead of 9.8%. Another claimed the state Department of Health “increased the COVID-19 case number by a whopping 90%.” There is no evidence of that.

Saladino’s Facebook post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

There have been discrepancies, and some confusion, in how test results are reported to the state.

But the size of the COVID-19 outbreak has to do with raw numbers of people in Florida who test positive for infection — not what percentage of test results are positive.

Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak

On July 12, the Sunshine State made headlines by recording 15,300 new coronavirus cases — breaking the U.S. record for most coronavirus cases in a day.

Florida led the nation in the number of cases over the previous seven days, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported July 15.

The same day, the Florida Department of Health announced that on July 14, its new cases reflected a nearly 14 percent positive rate — that is, the number of people who test positive for the first time divided by all tests. That’s higher than the 11 percent positive rate for the 3.4 million tests done during the state’s entire outbreak.

“I think the way our community has come back together over the last couple of weeks has really just been inconsistent with preventing the spread of a respiratory virus,” Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director with Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, told the Tampa Bay Times on the record-setting day.

The news story: 98% or 9.4%

Saladino’s Facebook post came the day that Fox 35, a television station in Orlando, did a news story about COVID-19 testing in Florida. The story said that all, or nearly all, of the tests done at some labs were reported to the state as being positive for the virus.

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That included, according to the story, Orlando Health reporting a 98 percent positive rate to the state on a batch of tests.

The hospital “confirmed errors” to the station, according to the story, and said the actual positive rate was only 9.4 percent.

The story was picked up by Fox News and the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner.

What Orlando Health says

Orlando Health has 450 locations, including 13 hospitals, as well as clinics, labs and other facilities. Kena Lewis, a spokeswoman for the system, told PolitiFact there has been confusion over how the state Department of Health website reports testing results.

On one page, showing data as of July 15, Orlando Health is listed with 98 percent of its 522 tests showing a positive result.

But Lewis gave us data showing the positive rate is only 10 percent when all 13 of the system’s hospitals, which go by different names, are taken into account. The rate was 9.4 percent as of July 12, she said.

Mistakes in reporting test results

Another problem, according to the Department of Health, is some smaller labs were reporting only the tests that had positive results to the state.

On the day the TV story aired, the department issued a statement saying it "immediately began working with those labs to ensure that all results were being reported in order to provide comprehensive and transparent data. As the state continues to receive results from various labs, the department will continue educating these labs on proper protocol for reporting COVID-19 test results."

Dr. Raul Pino, the local health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, told the Orlando Sentinel that in tracking most diseases like gonorrhea or HIV, negative tests typically aren’t reported, but in a pandemic, calculating the positivity rate is important to track the spread.

As for the errors, Pino said they don’t explain the state’s overall outbreak. “It takes a lot to change” the state’s overall positivity rate, Pino said.

The state Department of Health and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not respond to our request for additional information on how sites report test results.

On July 15, DeSantis echoed Pino’s point, saying “a number of labs are still doing the default, sending positive only without negatives. They are not trying to be underhanded. But we have identified it and they will start doing the negatives as well.”

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed: "Wrong" COVID-19 case count by Orlando Health "explains the 'outbreak' in Florida."

State data show one hospital in the 13-hospital Orlando Health system reporting a 98 percent positive rate on its 522 coronavirus tests. However, systemwide, Orlando Health’s positive rate is about 10 percent.

Around the state, some small labs have reported only positive tests to the state, possibly skewing to a small extent Florida’s overall positive test rate.

But the size of the COVID-19 outbreak in Florida is reflected in the overall numbers — including the 301,810 total cases and Florida setting a one-day national record for cases.

We rate the statement False.

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