Florida officials have again rolled back access to the state’s COVID-19 data, and will now only release key pandemic metrics such as the number of people who have been infected, died and vaccinated once every two weeks instead of every week.
The state did not announce the new policy in any traditional fashion, such as issuing a press release or an official statement via its social media accounts.
Instead, Florida Department of Health spokesperson Jeremy Redfern made the announcement at 4:31 p.m. Friday using his personal Twitter account. The tweet included a popular meme featuring World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon reacting to the news.
The Florida Department of Health then retweeted Redfern’s announcement at 7:49 p.m., adding a cat meme and noting that it’s “no longer season 1 of the pandemic.”
It is the second time in nine months that the state has reduced the frequency that it shares the latest pandemic data with the public. The state said it will continue to send daily data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which posts them online in conjunction with other states.
“Creating multiple reports is time consuming, and we are working to shift our focus onto the endemic stage of COVID-19,” Redfern said in a Monday email to the Tampa Bay Times.
However, Florida officials have also criticized the CDC for repeated errors posting the state’s data. County level deaths went missing, cases were misreported and, the state says, testing numbers were mislabeled. The New York Times reported last month that the federal agency does not report critical data including hospitalizations and deaths by race and vaccination status.
When the state changed its data policy in June, the announcement was made by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokesperson.
Public health messaging should be clear, transparent and packaged in a way to reach as many people as possible said Joshua Scacco, a professor of political communication at the University of South Florida.
Releasing the news via meme on a Friday evening “is the exact opposite of what a health department should do,” he said.
“Memes on Twitter aren’t intended to be taken as official statements,” said Department of Health spokesperson Weesam Khoury in an email sent to the Times on Monday. She elaborated further in another email:
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“While some may think using this style of language is not orthodox of government, I would argue that we should welcome it into the public sector. Social media is the most effective platform to distribute information quickly to our constituents we serve.”
The state had not issued an official statement as of 5 p.m. Monday.
“It’s a curious choice not to further explain (to the public) how these numbers are going to be reported and why this change is being made,” Scacco said, “especially in a public health crisis when people continue to die of this virus every day.”
Once, experts praised Florida for its data transparency. The state released data every day and set up a website that allowed the public, experts and journalists to easily analyze the trajectory of the pandemic when the virus started spreading in 2020.
Then state officials shut down its online COVID-19 database and switched to weekly reports in June 2021, weeks before the delta variant appeared in Florida. At the time the state also shut down its daily COVID-19 data website and stopped issuing other reports, including on infections in prisons, schools and long-term care facilities.
The weekly reports are only available as a PDF, making it difficult for reporters and researchers to collect and analyze outbreaks and trends of the infectious coronavirus.
Florida has recorded 5.8 million infections and 71,860 deaths during the 2-year pandemic, according to last week’s state report.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.
BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.
BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.
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