DeSantis office ‘leaks’ Florida records to fuel COVID-19 death ‘conspiracy’

Who is behind a “leak” of records on COVID-19 death certificates to a conservative blogger that other media outlets don’t have access to? Nobody is saying, but the subsequent blog supports a theory held by DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to speak on a range of topics related to the coronavirus on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, during a press conference at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to speak on a range of topics related to the coronavirus on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, during a press conference at the USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 6, 2020|Updated Nov. 6, 2020

Jennifer Cabrera isn’t an epidemiologist. Although she holds degrees in electrical engineering, she’s not a scientist either. But as the conservative blogger said on Facebook, she has “followers in the governor’s office.”

One of them is Gov. Ron DeSantis.

So in late October, Cabrera visited Florida’s Capitol and was mysteriously allowed to examine a month’s worth of COVID-19 death certificates — records that the state is not willing to concede are public and that it is not releasing to academics and journalists seeking to better understand the toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cabrera then wrote a post on her blog with her husband, Len, claiming that the state is overcounting COVID-19 deaths. “We can tell you definitively that Florida is counting deaths that were not directly caused by COVID-19,” the Cabreras wrote, arguing that some people died with COVID-19 but not from COVID-19.

Jennifer Cabrera
Jennifer Cabrera [ Facebook ]

That’s a meaningless distinction, according to public health experts. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that deaths are actually being undercounted nationwide.

But the misleading Oct. 30 blog post fed into a narrative pushed by DeSantis and President Donald Trump, who argue without evidence that scientists are blowing COVID-19 deaths out of proportion. Fred Piccolo Jr., DeSantis' spokesman, shared Cabrera’s post on Twitter — effectively accusing the governor’s own health department of exaggerating the death toll.

It all played out as DeSantis was helping engineer Trump’s win in Florida and playing up his own response to the virus. (Trump won the state handily after joking he would “fire” DeSantis, a close ally, if Joe Biden emerged victorious.)

“There has been this constant drumbeat of ‘Oh, most of the COVID deaths aren’t really COVID deaths.’ It’s been a conspiracy that’s been ongoing from a lot of right-wing media,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. “Anyone who understands medicine knows it’s crap. If you ascribed that theory to heart attack deaths, you’d say they died from underlying conditions like hypertension or diabetes. It’s like, what? It’s still a heart attack. It doesn’t make any sense. ... The people who are pushing this argument clearly haven’t spent any time in a hospital or know anything about infectious diseases.”

The governor, however, rejects the scientific consensus that COVID-19 has killed more than 230,000 Americans, according to Piccolo.

“He really just wants to get enough data to figure out whether either of these sides are true,” said Piccolo, referring to epidemiologists on the one hand and a group of bloggers and media personalities on the other.

Then came Cabrera’s blog post, based on 700 death certificates but spun to tout a baseless conspiracy theory.

Leak from nowhere

The story of how Cabrera got the documents, in spite of the secrecy surrounding them, is filled with contradictions and unanswered questions.

Cabrera told the Miami Herald that a third-party organization had provided her with the records, which had been photocopied and redacted. She was not allowed to take pictures or make copies.

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“I cannot tell you who showed them to me,” she told the Herald in an interview. “I can tell you we were put in a conference room with a babysitter. ... They were interested in having somebody take a look at them and provide feedback on how deaths from COVID were being characterized and that’s all I’ll say about that.”

Piccolo said someone let Cabrera into the State Capitol so she could examine the records. He described what happened as a “leak” but denied being the source of the records and said he didn’t know who was responsible.

“I walked in and she’s just looking at them in one of the rooms in the Capitol,” Piccolo said. “I had no idea what they were looking at. I just met her and left.”

The next day, Piccolo told a Herald reporter that Cabrera was the source of the records, but couldn’t explain how she might have acquired records maintained by the state that the administration has refused to provide. He then agreed to provide the records to the Herald.

The Florida Department of Health did not answer questions from the Herald, responding only to say it had “not provided death certificates to the Alachua Chronicle for their review.”

Until the late summer, the records had been released to the public in summary form by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which collects death certificates from county medical examiner’s offices during states of emergency.

But on Aug. 14 the Florida Medical Examiner’s Commission, swamped by coronavirus deaths and facing a massive backlog in reporting fatalities, voted to allow physicians to certify COVID-19 deaths and send them directly to the health department.

Academics and public health experts have been trying to view them, but the Department of Health hasn’t made them available. Piccolo said the health department claims they are not a public record.

That cut off the flow of information to the public — until Cabrera arrived at the Capitol.

“To give [these records] to somebody who doesn’t have expertise, it’s puzzling and it isn’t consistent with trying to get to the truth of what’s going on,” Jha said. “It is stunning.”

The Alachua Chronicle mixes local community news with posts casting doubt on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to running the blog, Cabrera has worked for her family’s agricultural business since 1993. Though she is critical of media coverage about the virus, Cabrera agreed that the records should be public.

“I think it was handled very poorly,” she said, “because I think everybody should have access to them.”

On Friday, one of Cabrera’s fellow writers at another blog that pushes unscientific arguments questioning COVID-19 data, Rational Ground, announced on Twitter that he had been hired to work on data analysis for DeSantis, including on COVID-19 projects. Rational Ground offers content that includes arguments on why masks don’t prevent the spread of COVID.

Kyle Lamb’s Twitter bio says that he currently runs a sports podcast network dedicated to the Ohio State Buckeyes.

‘Let’s look into that’

More than 17,000 Floridians are known to have died from COVID-19. Florida’s death rate per 100,000 people — 72 — ranks 11th-worst in the United States.

That’s led to criticism of DeSantis, who seemed to have the virus under control in the spring before he began to ease restrictions in the state and cases spiked.

Piccolo said that over the past month that the governor’s attention has turned to whether Florida’s death toll is inflated — something that, if true, might improve the public’s perception of how DeSantis handled the pandemic.

“He said, ‘Let’s look into that,’” Piccolo Jr. said. “He obviously doesn’t want to be sensational about it.”

But the question has been answered — and not by untrained bloggers like Cabrera.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says that COVID-19 deaths, which stood at 235,000 nationwide on Nov. 5, are likely being undercounted, not overcounted. From January through October there were nearly 300,000 more deaths in the United States than researchers would normally expect — meaning that tens of thousands of deaths may have been caused by COVID but not reported as such.

The governor’s office has lifted virtually all coronavirus restrictions around the state over the past few weeks, calling them unnecessary even as cases are rising once more.

The death certificates shown to Cabrera illustrate the cases of Floridians who died from COVID-19. The records, which have since been examined by the Herald, are heavily redacted, not revealing the date of death or county in which a person died. They do however include the age and the contributing causes of death.

Earlier this month, the office of Jose Oliva, a South Florida Republican and speaker of the Florida House, produced a report analyzing nearly 14,000 of the records.

Oliva’s report concluded that COVID-19 deaths had been overstated by as much as 10 percent because it appeared that some people suffering from COVID-19 died from other causes. (That’s the argument that Jha and other public health experts have dismissed as “crap.”)

Piccolo, who served as Oliva’s spokesman before moving to the governor’s office, acknowledged that the speaker’s report was “not a smoking gun.”

The second-guessing of the death toll by conservative media and political operatives has been frustrating for public health experts.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control under President Barack Obama, agrees that deaths are in fact being undercounted and stressed that excess mortality, or the total number of deaths over the usual baseline was “way up” across the country. Florida has already suffered 116 percent of its “expected deaths” this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control , the 10th-worst rate in the country.

“I’m kind of hoping that, as the election finishes, we can get onto the same page and recognize where we are with consistent data across the country so that people have information about what their risk is in their community,” he said.

Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas and reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

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