You’re not smart enough to be trusted with basic COVID-19 numbers. Not just you, but all regular Floridians. How many Pinellas residents died from the virus? How many Hillsborough nursing home residents went to the hospital with COVID? How many white or Black people got vaccinated in Pasco County? Don’t look for that information in the weekly state report. Leaders in Tallahassee don’t think you can handle those numbers. That’s the message they send when they withhold basic information about how the pandemic has affected individual counties. The policy is insulting and shortsighted and makes it harder for people to gauge the severity of the crisis.
Early in the pandemic, the Florida Department of Health released daily COVID reports, including county-level details on deaths. The public releases eventually included infections among patients and staff in long-term health care facilities, infections among students and school staff, and vaccinations by race, age and gender, among other details. That stopped in early June after Gov. Ron DeSantis said the pandemic had waned and daily reports were no longer necessary. The state also took down its online COVID dashboard, an easily accessible breakdown of COVID information. Florida was “returning to normal,” a spokeswoman said.
Just a few weeks later, Florida’s COVID cases and deaths spiked. In fact, since that announcement, Florida’s COVID death rate is the highest in the nation. Still, state officials refused to return to daily reports or to release the previously available information. The state stuck to its weekly reports, which no longer included a breakdown of county-level deaths, a decision detailed in a recent article by Times reporter Ian Hodgson. To sum up: The same governor who claims that individuals — not government or schools — should make the decisions about vaccinations and wearing masks doesn’t believe those same individuals should have easy access to county-level information to help them make those very decisions.
The information the state released to the public also came in a format that was hard to collect and analyze. So as COVID exploded in Florida this summer, residents could not easily assess what was happening in their counties. Hernando and Citrus residents, for instance, could be forgiven for not knowing that since June 5 their counties had two of the highest COVID death rates in the state. State officials, however, should not be excused for being so opaque with such important information.
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Basic COVID numbers aren’t a state secret that need guarding at all costs. Nor are the numbers so complicated that the general public will misinterpret what they mean. Evaluating cases, hospitalizations, deaths and the number of people vaccinated doesn’t require the public to possess Newtonian math skills. Sure, it’s worth knowing that deaths will likely rise for a few weeks even after new cases have peaked, and a one-day spike in any category does not make a trend. But the average eighth-grader can understand those nuances. Instead, state officials decided to leave those eighth-graders ― and their parents and everyone else — in the dark as a dangerous virus ravaged their counties.
The state encouraged the public to find some of the information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. But when the state took down its online COVID portal in June, the CDC’s site no longer included important information like the number of people dying in each Florida county. The information was missing for 105 days from June 4 through Sept. 17, Hodgson’s article showed. The federal agency must take some of blame for failing to pivot to another available means for compiling the Florida data. But the federal mistake doesn’t absolve the state’s dangerous refusal to return to a more transparent release of COVID information. Floridians should not have to navigate the CDC’s website to find information the state used to easily provide on its own dashboard.
The COVID battle isn’t over. The virus killed more than 1,100 Floridians last week, raising the state’s grim tally to nearly 58,000. Residents deserve a thorough, daily and easily accessible accounting of the COVID numbers, for the state and for their counties. During a pandemic, anything less smacks of negligence.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.