Fact Check: No, Florida's Recent Data Reporting Change Doesn't Misrepresent COVID Deaths

Posted: Sep 02, 2021 10:25 AM
Fact Check: No, Florida's Recent Data Reporting Change Doesn't Misrepresent COVID Deaths

Source: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

The Miami Herald has published an investigative report about Florida's COVID death statistics, detailing how the state is shifting its method for tabulating and making public Coronavirus deaths. Its opening sentences suggest something underhanded is afoot: "As cases ballooned in August, however, the Florida Department of Health changed the way it reported death data to the CDC, giving the appearance of a pandemic in decline, an analysis of Florida data by the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald found." The first expert quoted in this story pronounces the change "extremely problematic." Headline: 

Here's what the shift entails: 

Until three weeks ago, data collected by DOH and published on the CDC website counted deaths by the date they were recorded — a common method for producing daily stats used by most states. On Aug. 10, Florida switched its methodology and, along with just a handful of other states, began to tally new deaths by the date the person died.

In fact, in addition to Florida, nine other states use the "deaths by date" method, as well as Puerto Rico and New York City. California, Michigan and Tennessee use a hybrid model. All other states use the "date reported" system. Many paragraphs into the piece, the Herald quotes an epidemiologist who says tracking COVID deaths by date, as Florida now does, produces superior and more accurate data:

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida who has been tracking the state’s COVID data, said reporting by date of death is better for long-term studies of the disease. “Deaths by date of death curve is the most accurate you can get,” Salemi said. “You know exactly when people died, you know how to construct the curve and exactly when we were experiencing surges in terms of deaths.”

Salemi does acknowledge that the "death by date" method can complicate tracking deaths in real-time, and in the short term, even though the long-term data is improved. In the story, the Herald casts the change as sudden and unannounced, but the move was disclosed and covered weeks ago. Indeed, newspapers have reported on the change on multiple occasions – including the Herald, prior to their splashy "special report" being published (see another example below): 

Note the quotes from officials at the state and federal levels. Both death reporting methods will still be tracked, and there is no allegation whatsoever that any COVID deaths will be undercounted or uncounted. Lazy attempted parallels to New York's scandals do not withstand even the slightest bit of scrutiny. The Cuomo administration abruptly changed the way it counted nursing home deaths in order to hide how many old people were dying from COVID in those facilities, following the governor's lethal decision to require nursing homes to accept infected and contagious residents. New York massively undercounted its nursing home deaths by thousands. The Empire State also undercounted overall COVID deaths by roughly 12,000, as the ex-governor allegedly used state resources to secure a multimillion-dollar book deal, premised on his supposedly excellent pandemic leadership. New York cooked its books. Florida has not. And the new approach on COVID deaths reporting does not change any of that.

As I pointed out in my initial reaction to the Herald story, scrutiny isn't unwarranted here. Unlike some of the other DeSantis "scandals," which have been embarrassingly fabricated nonsense, this is a legitimate story. Switching COVID death reporting methods mid-stream, especially mid-surge, deserves attention and invites serious questions. In my judgment, this is not a scandal on substance. Multiple other states employ Florida's new method, which does not distort or hide COVID deaths at all, and leads to more accurate data curves. The timing could seem suspicious, however, as the move happened in the middle of a nasty spike in cases and negative outcomes. So it's at least understandable why people's antennae were raised over this episode. Demanding answers isn't "fake news" in this case. That said, the apparent trigger for this decision was not a political desire to downplay short-term reporting of deaths during the Delta wave, but rather to try to avoid additional misleading headlines that are an artifact of the "date reported" method. This dust-up over an exaggerated case count report on August 10 seems to have been a major catalyst: 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is misrepresenting Florida’s coronavirus case counts from this past weekend, according to the state’s Department of Health (DOH). On Monday, the CDC announced that Florida had reported new 28,317 cases for Sunday, August 8 — a figure that would have set a new record in the Sunshine State. It also reported 28,316 new cases for the day prior, and 23,903 for last Friday. State officials dispute those numbers. On Monday night, the DOH’s official Twitter account stated that the number of newly recorded cases for all three days was substantially lower than what the CDC is claiming, coming in at 21,500 on Friday, 19,567 on Saturday, and 15,319 on Sunday.  Responding to a report on the purported Sunday total compiled by the CDC, the department tweeted that “this is not accurate. Florida follows CDC guidelines reporting cases Monday through Friday, other than holidays. Consequently, each Monday or Tuesday, there will be two or three days of data reported at a time. When data is published, it is attributed evenly to the previous days.” Dr. Shamarial Roberson, Florida’s deputy secretary for health, told National Review that the CDC has acknowledged and committed to remedying its error.

The new Herald story confirms this: "The change came the day after the state health department’s official Twitter account posted a series of late-night tweets accusing the CDC of publishing incorrect numbers..."As a result of data discrepancies that have occurred, this week, FDOH worked quickly and efficiently with CDC to ensure accurate display of data on their website the same day," DOH spokesperson Weesam Khoury told the Herald in a statement at the time. "To proactively ensure accurate data is consistently displayed, the Department will begin daily submission of a complete renewed set of case data to CDC, including retrospective COVID-19 cases." The Florida Department of Health has published this fact sheet about the whole kerfuffle, accusing the Herald of publishing "an article riddled with contradictions and false claims." It is worth reviewing. I'll also point out another Herald excerpt from the paper's coverage of the very change they've now dressed up as some "new" bombshell – back on August 12:

The CDC has changed the way it reports cases and deaths in Florida. It now publishes cases and deaths based on the date of occurrence — instead of the date that it was reported to the agency. The reason is due to the Florida Department of Health submitting a complete renewed set of case data to the CDC every day, including retrospective COVID-19 cases, Weesam Khoury, the Florida DOH communications director, told the Miami Herald. “This will ensure that continuous epidemiological analyses provide the most updated data to the public,” Khoury said.

This has been publicly confirmed for weeks, including on-the-record quotes from officials about it. DeSantis allies will also note that the Herald has been especially hostile to the governor, repeatedly giving a platform to the debunked, conspiratorial rantings of Rebekah Jones, a discredited paranoiac and grifter. I'll leave you with the latest evidence that Florida's painful Delta surge may, in fact, finally be abating:

Let's hope this continues, and that seasonal spikes elsewhere in the country this fall and winter are less deadly where vaccination rates are high. Then again, Florida has an above-average rate (including a strong one among seniors) and still got bludgeoned. 

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