‘Slap on the wrist’ over how Florida shares coronavirus data

A national accreditation program says the Florida Department of Health should improve the way it provides COVID-19 data to the public.
People arrive to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up site inside the Village Park gym in Wellington on April 20. A six-month investigation has concluded that the Florida Department of Health should improve how it communicates COVID-19 data and analysis to the public
People arrive to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up site inside the Village Park gym in Wellington on April 20. A six-month investigation has concluded that the Florida Department of Health should improve how it communicates COVID-19 data and analysis to the public [ GREG LOVETT, THE PALM BEACH POST | Palm Beach Post ]
Published May 25, 2021|Updated May 25, 2021

When John Silver’s 14-year-old wanted to return to school last October, the registered nurse from Broward County made a flurry of phone calls in search of an answer to a simple question: How many COVID-19 cases had the school recorded?

The question would lead to a six-month investigation that concluded the Florida Department of Health should improve how it communicates COVID-19 data and analysis to the public — transparency experts say is crucial for making personal health decisions like whether to send a child back to school.

Silver, who also holds a PhD in comparative studies, first went looking for data about cases at the University School in Davie, where his son attended, just as the virus was kicking off its fall resurgence in South Florida. He never found what he was looking for. School administrators said they couldn’t tell him how many cases they had. Staff at the county health department said they simply passed the data onto the state. And officials at the Florida Department of Health pointed him to a website containing limited data. Some schools, including his son’s, weren’t even listed. Even the health department’s inspector general had no answer for him.

As a last resort, he filed a complaint with the Public Health Accreditation Board, a national accreditation program for state and local public health departments.

“This has impaired parents’ abilities to make informed decisions on sending their children back to school,” Silver wrote in an Oct. 26 complaint. Silver alleged that the Florida Department of Health violated its accreditation standards when it “failed to maintain accurate records regarding COVID-19 infection rates in schools,” issued incomplete data, and “neglected large segments of the schools in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.”

On May 17, the accreditation board issued its gentlest reprimand, saying that while the health department was generally in line with accreditation standards, it should have done a better job sharing the data it had with the public.

“This complaint has highlighted the importance of the health department having strong relationships with key partners — in this case, school districts — to facilitate timely collection and dissemination of data during an emergency,” wrote Wilma Wooten, chairwoman of the accreditation committee, in a memo dated March 22.

The report did note an improvement in the public reporting of school-related case data over the course of the investigation.

The Florida Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the action from the board amounted to what is essentially a slap on the wrist, “but it’s not necessarily an inconsequential slap on the wrist.”

“If an accredited health department is told by an accreditation board that they need to do something better, then they’re going to do that, they’re going to pay attention to that, because the next step would be probation or losing accreditation, and that doesn’t look good,” Toner said.

Many health departments have chosen not to publish data on COVID-19 in schools, Toner said. But in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis left it up to parents to make their own decisions about in-school or virtual learning, he said the information Silver sought was vital.

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“I think if the governor is saying people should make their own informed decisions, you can only do that if you have the information needed,” Toner said.

The light reprimand comes at a time when health departments across the country are facing a credibility crisis, spurred by both a distrust of science among some as well as allegations of political interference.

Florida’s COVID data has been the subject of national scrutiny since Rebekah Jones, who built the DOH dashboard and maps on COVID-19 cases, claimed she was asked to “manipulate data” in order to justify lifting emergency orders and restrictions on businesses. Jones was fired last May for “insubordination” after publicly challenging the department’s transparency.

The health department’s office of the inspector general has contacted Jones about her allegations. But the scope of the OIG investigation is unclear, and the agency denied the Herald’s request for more information, citing an active investigation.

In his complaint, Silver alleged that he was delayed in getting data about his son’s school because of “potential interference,” but the accreditation board deemed that allegation outside its authority and did not investigate.

The president of the accreditation board, Paul Kuehnert, who oversaw the investigation, said the board took the complaint “very seriously” and emphasized that while there was nothing concerning about the department’s data collection or analysis there was room for improvement in public communications.

“Based on what we have seen with Florida, the professionals at the Department of Health are doing a really excellent job,” Kuehnert said.

While he agrees the data improved, Silver told the Herald he was still unsatisfied with the resolution.

“I think probation [would have been] appropriate,” Silver said. “The FDOH was supposed to have an independent obligation to communicate accurately with citizens. It sets a dangerous precedent, makes FDOH data unreliable for researchers, and puts the public at risk.”

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