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FL Altered How It Measured COVID Deaths, Making It Look Like They Were Declining

The change resulted in a reported statewide average daily death count of just 46 when it should have been 262.

U.S. Navy Lt. Wade Miller treats a patient aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19), April 4, 2020.

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) has changed the way it reports deaths from coronavirus in the state to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a move that some have said gives the false appearance of a decline in pandemic-related deaths.

The Miami Herald reports that Florida changed its methodology in its reports of COVID-related deaths earlier this month. Rather than providing data on deaths after their causes have been determined, the state is now reporting deaths on the date that they occurred.

The seemingly insignificant change has drastic repercussions. If Florida had continued using the old method of reporting deaths, it’s tally on Monday would have shown an average of 262 daily deaths in the state for the previous seven days. Instead, it only reported 46 “new deaths” per day for the previous seven days, a measure that is about 82 percent lower than what it ought to be.

The discrepancy comes from reporting deaths on the day they occur before the cause of death — such as COVID-19 — is definitively recorded. Death certificates typically take days, sometimes weeks, to complete, and the numbers that get reported “day-of” only reflect cases that are fully known to have been COVID-related.

Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), defended the change, calling The Herald’s reporting “disinformation.”

“Florida didn’t change its COVID-19 data. [DOH] now reports deaths by actual date of death because it’s the most precise and accurate way to report deaths,” she claimed in a tweet.

But Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist and a professor at Emory University, told The Herald that the change was “extremely problematic,” adding that it makes the state “look like we are doing better than we are.”

Changing to the new way of reporting coronavirus deaths leaves too many things up to people’s imaginations, including whether things are improving or not, Patel explained.

“It shouldn’t be left to the public, to scientists, national policy makers or the media to guess as to what these numbers are,” Patel said.

Nikki Fried, the state’s Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic candidate hoping to run against DeSantis next year, also voiced dissatisfaction with the change, calling it “deeply troubling.”

Florida, under DeSantis’s watch, has taken a number of liberties with how it reports its COVID data. While it reports its numbers to the CDC daily, its reports to the public on total cases, hospitalizations and deaths are only made on a weekly basis. The state also stopped sharing data on county-level case and death numbers in June.

DeSantis has been scrutinized for downplaying vaccines and masks as effective ways to quell the spread of coronavirus. His failure to lead on the issue, including the noticeable increases in hospitalizations and deaths in the state, has resulted in diminished polling numbers over his handling of the pandemic in Florida. With this new change in the state’s methodology for reporting coronavirus deaths DeSantis will likely face fresh criticisms.

Since DeSantis declared “victory” against coronavirus in May, Florida has seen 8,410 deaths related to the virus — or over 38 deaths per 100,000 residents, based on the state’s population — in the past four months alone. In the past two weeks, the state has seen 262 deaths per day, on average, making it the third worst in the nation on that measure on a per capita basis.

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