Why Florida’s coronavirus numbers matter | Editorial
The public needs accurate information to evaluate the success of the collective effort to fight the pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis during a coronavirus new conference Thursday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis during a coronavirus new conference Thursday. [ The Florida Channel ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 13, 2020

Now more than ever, Floridians need to see accurate numbers so they can judge for themselves how well their collective effort is working to combat the coronavirus pandemic and how well their elected officials are responding on their behalf. Yet in too many respects, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is providing incomplete or inaccurate information -- or no information at all. It is critical that Floridians see a complete picture of the scope of this challenge, or support for stay-at-home orders will drop and public confidence in the state government’s approach will decline.

On the plus side, the state updates reported cases of the virus and the number of deaths twice a day. It also provides information that some states don’t provide, such as the age and gender of each person with the virus. DeSantis also provides semi-regular updates that offer a mix of numbers about testing capacity and the number of tests performed. But in too many fundamental ways, basic numbers are lacking:

-- The state’s count of deaths from the virus is misleading. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Kathleen McGrory and Rebecca Woolington reported Sunday, at least 40 additional people who died from the virus were missing from the state’s count. That’s because the Florida Department of Health has been counting coronavirus deaths only for people who claimed residency in Florida, which leaves out the snowbirds. That might not be a big deal in Indiana, but it is significant in Florida. If snowbirds from Michigan died from the virus in St. Petersburg, shouldn’t St. Petersburg residents know?

The information is available. The medical examiners are counting anyone who died in Florida, including snowbirds and visitors. The state has millions of tourists and hundreds of thousands of snowbirds who live here for months at a time. It should count all deaths from the virus that occur in the state, because to do otherwise results in an under-count and paints an incomplete picture for Floridians who deserve to know how far the virus has spread in their communities. There was some indication Monday the state may be changing its counting practices.

-- The state refuses to name elder-care facilities where residents and staff have been exposed the virus. While the state health department has reported more than 780 residents and workers at those facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, it has refused requests from journalists and advocates for the names of the facilities.

It gets worse. The Miami Herald notified the state last week that it intended to file a lawsuit seeking the names of the facilities under Florida’s public records law. Then the governor’s general counsel called a prominent lawyer at Holland & Knight --the firm that represented the Herald -- who had no connection to the lawsuit but has represented the state on many issues. The law firm then directed the Herald’s long-time lawyer to abandon the lawsuit.

Why is the state hiding these numbers? This smacks of blatant political pressure, and the Herald intends to file the lawsuit using another law firm if the state continues to refuse to release the records. DeSantis and the state surgeon general dodged repeated questions about the issue during a news conference Monday and did not explain why the state will not release the information to the public.

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-- The state under-reports the testing backlog. The Department of Health reported Monday that more than, 1,100 people statewide are waiting for their test results. But the state only reports the number of Floridians waiting for results from state labs, not private ones. The private labs are performing more than 90 percent of the tests, so there have to be far more people awaiting test results than the state site suggests.

Facts matter. Floridians deserve to see the full scope of this pandemic. If they don’t, it will make it that much harder to build public support for the way forward.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news


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