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Medical Professionals In Florida Criticize Governor For A Lack Of Transparency

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Officials in Florida say fewer than 2,000 people have died from the coronavirus, a death toll that ranks it behind 10 other states. But how Governor Ron DeSantis's administration is compiling its numbers is in question. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Governor DeSantis says the decision to begin reopening Florida's economy this month was based on data, including the declining rate of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. At a news conference last month, he listed several states with higher numbers. In New York at the time, the death rate was more than 100 per 100,000 people.

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RON DESANTIS: You know, Florida is much lower at four fatalities per 100,000. And I think part of that is because we've had a lot of great work done with our medical professionals.

ALLEN: But some medical professionals in Florida aren't happy with how the state is counting deaths and sharing that information with the public. For nearly 30 years, medical examiners have been the officials in charge of tracking the number of deaths from natural disasters or diseases. It began after Hurricane Andrew, when rumors circulated that the death toll was much higher than the official tally of 65. Stephen Nelson, head of the state Medical Examiners Commission, says putting them in charge helped build public confidence in the numbers.

STEPHEN NELSON: Every time the governor of Florida issues an executive order that deals with a natural disaster, the Medical Examiners Commission has counted the dead. They've been the official counters of the dead.

ALLEN: That changed last month, when the DeSantis administration told medical examiners they could no longer release their count of COVID-19 deaths to the public. Florida's Department of Health publishes its own daily list of the numbers of people infected and the number who have died. Last month, the Tampa Bay Times reported that those numbers were often lower than the count provided by medical examiners. After that story ran, lawyers with the Health Department instructed medical examiners to stop releasing the information. Nelson, who's the medical examiner for three Florida counties, says the lawyers told him information on the deaths was confidential and exempt from Florida's expansive open records laws.

NELSON: Nobody has ever said that the list that we maintain at the state level - no one has ever claimed that it's confidential, except now, the Department of Health.

ALLEN: In a statement, the Health Department says it remains dedicated to providing Floridians with transparent information regarding COVID-19 and that it includes data provided by the Medical Examiners Commission. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, says he's seen differences among medical examiners in the criteria they use in recording a death from COVID-19.

JAY WOLFSON: There's also, I think, a concern at the executive level in Florida from the beginning of this that the data could be misused, that it could create panic and uncertainty, which is a real concern we all have.

ALLEN: But it's not just about who controls the data. There are also disagreements about which deaths should be counted. Steven Nelson says there's a reason the numbers compiled by medical examiners are typically higher than those reported by the state health department.

NELSON: The Medical Examiners Commission is counting every person that dies in Florida. The Department of Health, by their own statements, have said that they are not counting snowbirds. They're not counting out-of-state visitors. They are only counting people that have a in-state permanent Florida residence.

ALLEN: This isn't the only area in which the DeSantis administration has been criticized for a lack of transparency. Reporters and others, including Democratic officials, have also had to fight to get information about the numbers of cases in prisons and in long-term care facilities. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.