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A USF Epidemiologist's Take On Disputed CDC-Florida COVID Numbers

A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Radoslav Zilinsky
Radoslav Zilinsky

On Monday, the Florida Department of Health called out the discrepancy on Twitter, renewing attention to the state's decision to stop reporting daily COVID-19 numbers even as the delta variant drives up cases.

The state took issue with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 case count for Florida this week, renewing attention to the state’s decision to end daily reporting in June.

The Florida Department of Health began tweeting at several news outlets Monday after they reported CDC numbers the Florida agency said were incorrect.

In response to a request for an interview Monday, the CDC told WLRN it was working with state officials to correct the information based on the date cases occur and expected to repost the correct data.

“Wrong again,” the agency tweeted after the Sun-Sentinel reported the numbers.

This summer as numbers dropped, Florida said it was transitioning into the next phase of the pandemic. That was before the delta variant triggered a spike in cases. In the last two weeks, the number of cases in the state have soared 84%, with Florida's positivity rate at 18.4%.

WLRN’s Jenny Staletovich spoke to Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine, who maintains a COVID-19 dashboard.

The following excerpt of their interview has been edited for clarity.

WLRN: Can you tell us how the numbers are compiled and what may have caused the error?

SALEMI: Absolutely. I pay a lot of attention to these numbers, and I think I know what happened. So if you look at the numbers over time for Florida, what you tend to see is every Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the numbers reported for Florida are almost identical. And it's not because the actual number of cases on those three days are identical. It's that the Florida Department of Health is likely reporting a sum total for those three days and the CDC is taking that total and dividing it by three.

And Florida is not the only state that reports an aggregate sum that compiles all of the weekend numbers. So this is something that's been common.

What I'm guessing happened is that the CDC took those numbers and instead of dividing by three, they divided by only two. And so obviously that ends up with a much higher daily total.

And again, I think it's pretty easily explained. I hear a lot of people saying, well, who do we trust, the CDC or the Florida Department of Health? That is not the issue.

Can you provide some context for the dashboards? COVID is unprecedented and the public dashboards sprung up as a way to convey information in this really chaotic time. As an epidemiologist, what's your take on the public's access to disease counts, how they should use it and how important is it in conveying information?

So I think when we look back at this as public health professionals, we are going to realize that one of the biggest voids that we had was data infrastructure.

We did not have the ability to very quickly identify the important elements, harmonize the data definitions so that everybody's reporting apples to apples, and have a good infrastructure for collecting it all and making it available to the public in a very visually pleasing way.

What decisions or how should people use these numbers? What decisions should they be making with all this data?

The data are clear. We're moving in a very bad direction in Florida and we've got a number of reasons why.

We've got the delta variant, which is just so much more transmissible. We've got over 8 million people in the state of Florida who are at a vaccine-eligible age, who have yet to get fully vaccinated and another 2.8 million children younger than 12 who cannot be protected through vaccination. We've got a general relaxation in the mitigation strategies like mask wearing and social distancing. We've got the heat in Florida driving people indoors in public settings, where the variant is just going to pass so much more easily from person to person. And we've got a lot of people with pandemic fatigue.

For all of those reasons, we've got numbers headed in a very bad direction. We've gone from just about six weeks ago having 245 adults being hospitalized every day for confirmed COVID-19. And right now that number is over 2,000 a day. We've gone from six children being hospitalized every day, to now over 50 a day.

And so the numbers are all telling us two big things. For the long term, we need to break down barriers to vaccination. But even if 4 million people went out and got vaccinated today, for most of them, they won't be fully protected for five or six weeks. That's how long it's going to take to get both doses and then [be protected] 14 days after the second dose.

So in the short term, because delta is causing so much damage so quickly, we need to re-engage in masking and social distancing, especially when we're in indoor public settings.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.