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State raises questions about COVID-19 death data. Some question timing of announcement

3 additional deaths reported Wednesday in Northeast Florida

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With reported COVID-19 deaths of Florida residents topping 16,000 this week, the state Department of Health said Wednesday that information about fatalities needs a “more rigorous review.”

Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who serves as the department’s secretary, said the state took a deeper look at 95 COVID-19 deaths. In 16 cases, it found more than a two-month time frame between when people tested positive for COVID-19 and the actual deaths. Also, another 11 deaths were more than 30 days old when they were reported to the state, according to the health department.

“During a pandemic, the public must be able to rely on accurate public health data to make informed decisions. To ensure the accuracy of COVID-19 related deaths, the department will be performing additional reviews of all deaths.” Rivkees said in a prepared statement. “Timely and accurate data remains a top priority of the Department of Health.”

The announcement came less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 general election in which COVID-19 has become the overarching issue for voters in Florida and across the nation.

It also came as the numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state increase and as dozens of deaths are reported each day.

There were three deaths reported Wednesday in Northeast Florida — one in Clay County and two in Putnam County.

As of Tuesday, Florida reported 760,389 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Duval County reported 128 new cases, bringing the cumulative total to 33,260.

Also, at least 16,105 Florida residents had died. Slightly more than 40 percent of the deaths involved residents or staff members of long-term care facilities, but mostly residents. More than 500 deaths have been linked to COVID-19 in Duval County.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, questioned the reasons for Wednesday’s announcement.

“It almost seems politically motivated,” Eskamani said. “Accuracy of data is very important. And this administration has been very keen on downplaying the effects of COVID-19 from the very beginning, and I think this is the same of the same. Why haven’t we gotten this right? It’s unbelievable at seven months in, our surgeon general has been MIA for most of this pandemic. And now, all of a sudden, he has something to say.”

The announcement about reviewing fatality data came as the state mulls whether to continue to update COVID-19 infection reports on a daily basis. The state already has reduced to once a week the reporting of certain other data about COVID-19, including data about the number of children suffering from a rare multi-organ inflammatory disease and the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 deaths.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Health had not released a daily report with updated COVID-19 numbers --- a report that usually comes out in the middle of the day.

The Department of Health announcement also came a week after House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, announced the findings of an analysis of 13,920 COVID-19 death certificates that were provided to House staff members by the Department of Health.

Sixty percent of the death certificates had reporting errors, the analysis said, and did not adhere “to the national standards for completion of death certificates in general and guidelines for COVID-19 related deaths in particular.”

(Reported deaths and hospitalizations in graphic below are not up to date due pending review)

The analysis also said most of the death certificates were filled out by medical examiners and not by physicians who cared for patients before they died.

The analysis also criticized federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to include in the death total all deaths in which positive COVID-19 tests are known. Florida has abided by the guidelines. The inclusion of those deaths increased Florida’s COVID-19 death count by 10 percent, according to the House analysis.

“Any ‘current’ count of COVID-19 deaths is more accurately described as the number of people with COVID-19 who died, rather than those who died from COVID-19,” the analysis said.

Democrats, however, questioned the House analysis.

“What this comes down to is this is COVID-19 deniers. And I hate to say it, but this is a complete attempt to downplay this pandemic that has destroyed lives across the country and world,” Eskamani told The News Service of Florida at the time. “There are so many steps we can take to not cause controversy over this pandemic and just get our job done. It’s very frustrating to see these used-up attacks to downplay the pandemic.”


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