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Florida's COVID-19 Calculations Questioned As Possible Fall Surge Looms

Florida’s COVID-19 cases are ticking higher, as is the state’s death toll. As concerns about a fall surge increase, there are new questions about the reliability of the official COVID-19 data reported by the state’s health department.

House Speaker Jose Oliva recently commissioned his staff to review the reported coronavirus deaths through late September. That report casts doubt on more than 2,000 COVID deaths, claiming the virus was a factor but not, or likely not, the cause of death. In a memo to House members, Oliva warned against using the state’s death data to make policy.

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The state’s COVID statistics are vital because they’ve been used to justify reopening the state, loosening restrictions for businesses, and bringing students and teachers back into classrooms. More than seven months into the pandemic, having reliable, accurate data on the virus is key to know where it is, how to slow its spread, and make sure health care resources are ready.

South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter Mario Ariza and Dr. Steven Rosenberg, past chair of the Florida Board of Medicine, appeared on the Florida Roundup with hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross.

Here’s an excerpt from the conversation.

MELISSA ROSS: You report that Florida is using a misleading measure of positive cases to justify reopening schools and businesses and that we aren't getting a true picture of the spread of the pandemic. That's the opposite of what the House speaker is saying. So what's the real story? What's the data revealing?

MARIO ARIZA: We have to give praise where praise is due, right? The state of Florida does put out more statistics about the coronavirus than a lot of other states or countries do. But because we put out a lot of data, there's also a lot of grounds for criticism and discussion about how that data gets used, the quality of the data and who is using it as a support for any kind of political agenda or policy outcome. So that's to begin with.

But when it comes to the particular statistic that I've been really digging down and trying to analyze, I believe Speaker Oliva is talking about the death rates. I've been looking at the positivity rates. Which is what percentage of people have the virus on any given day in Florida? And the answer for that turns out to be a little bit trickier than you'd think. It should be just a straight up, well, percentage.

But what our reporting has shown is that the state of Florida has consistently chosen to highlight a statistic that shows a lower positivity rate than the statistic that other states tend to use and that other organizations tend to use. And that matters because there have been moments when decision makers have made policy outcomes, whether or not to close restaurants, whether or not to reopen restaurants, house football games, put mask mandates in place because of where this percentage stood.

"Was it above five percent for 14 days? Was it below five percent for 14 days?" And if you're calculating it the way that Florida likes to calculate it, and that a lot of Florida's leaders like to point to, then it's been pretty low for a pretty long time.

But if you calculated the other ways that are more commonly accepted — right, it hasn't been below five percent for 14 days. And so that's where at least there is an argument to make for there being a misprision, or a misuse in this statistic as a warrant for reopening.

TOM HUDSON: So there's two buckets of statistics that we're talking about here. One is the number of fatalities in Florida that can be attributed to COVID-19 or that COVID-19 contributed to it. The other one is a handle on the positivity rate on any given day or any multi-day period. Dr. Rosenberg, you wrote an opinion piece that was published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel this week calling Governor DeSantis’ policies “ill advised.” The governor often points to the State Department of Health data regarding infection rates and fatality rates to support actions that he's taken to reopen the state and reduce restrictions. Is that data reliable?

DR. STEVEN ROSENBERG: I think if you look at the history of what's happened with his opening of various venues, it seems to have always backfired. And I think the physicians who cosigned this, share the view that all too often venues are being opened prematurely. The numbers of cases are not being reduced to a level where contact tracking could occur. And we saw that initially with the spring breakers, where the bars and the restaurants and the hotels were open and there were large, large groups of young kids having a good time, but ended up being super spreaders, not just through Florida, but elsewhere in the country.

HUDSON: But is the data reliable to make those decisions?

ROSENBERG: I think one of the difficulties is that the data is not consistent and it's changed several times over the last eight months as to how they're collecting the data. We've seen large dumps of 400,000 lab results in one day, which, you know, turned out it was over a period of months. So, we really have no clue as to how reliable the data is.

I mean, personally, I look at emergency room visits and hospital utilization among the faculty at the University of Miami, and I get their numbers on a regular basis. And you can see when the number of COVID admissions are going up or going down. You know, in the last two weeks, we're seeing the numbers already going up.

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Denise Royal