Back in April, it became clear that Florida was intentionally hiding a list of daily deaths that had previously been compiled by county medical examiners. Since that time, those examiners, as well as hospitals and local officials, have complained that the number of COVID-19 deaths being reported in Governor Ron DeSantis regular updates, doesn’t match what they’re seeing in their areas. Last week, the scientist behind Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard was fired after she says she refused to alter numbers as she was told.
With 52,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Florida is in the top ten states when it comes to infections. But the 2,300 recorded deaths is less than half of those from Michigan, a state with a similar number of cases. Considering the number of elderly residents and retirement communities, Florida’s relatively light death toll seemed somewhat miraculous, and DeSantis has been bragging both about the “success” of his policies and sneering at pundits that warned of potential disaster from his refusal to enforce social distancing guidelines.
But there’s still more evidence that “miracle” isn’t the right word. The correct word is “con.” Because it looks like DeSantis has been taking COVID-19 deaths out of one column and inserting them into another.
Even before the state took what had always been public information and began to hide it behind a newfound concern for privacy, there was evidence that DeSantis was covering up COVID-19 in the “Sunshine State.” On April 17, the Sun Sentinel warned that there was a spike in “pneumonia deaths” indicating that COVID-19 was already present and active in the state at a time when the official test results were showing a handful of cases. Even though flu cases were winding down in mid-March, pneumonia deaths had continued to head straight up. State Department of Health officials refused to comment on whether there was a connection between the soaring death count and the coronavirus, even as the official number of COVID-19 remained low.
As a infectious disease expert from George Mason University made clear, “It is likely that they missed some COVID-19 deaths and reported them as respiratory deaths.” However, while it might have been possible that deaths in March and early April were missed simply because state officials weren’t keyed to look for COVID-19 deaths, that certainly wasn’t true after that day.
On May 7, the Miami Herald called on DeSantis to stop hiding the true toll of deaths from the novel coronavirus. In particular, that paper pointed out that DeSantis “continues to keep Floridians in the dark about what is—and isn’t—happening in the state’s 3,800 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.” And on Wednesday, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that in spite of DeSantis’ claims about his actions in Florida, the “whack-a-mole approach” to dealing with nursing homes was failing. Instead, the percentage of deaths in those facilities was continuing to grow along with a rising tide of new cases.
But DeSantis didn’t open up. He didn’t open the list of deaths, or any other information. As the firing of Dr. Rebekah Jones made clear, Florida has only continued to hide and alter more information over time.
And it seems there really was something to hide. Multiple tweets have pointed out that Florida is one of several states where a particular category of deaths that have happened in 2020 represents a sharp increase over past years. That category is deaths due to “flu or pneumonia.” As compiled by the CDC, in the first six months of 2020, Florida has logged 5,248 deaths due to pneumonia. Of those deaths, 960 were identified as being connected to COVID-19. That leaves 4,288 pneumonia deaths which were reported, but not logged against the COVID-19 deaths. Looking at the period between 2014 and 2018, Florida has averaged 2,870 deaths from pneumonia … over an entire year.
That leaves an excess of 1,418 deaths from pneumonia over past years. If those numbers were added to Florida’s current COVID-19 total, the number of deaths would be 3,738. That would still leave Florida with a lower death toll due to COVID-19 than many other states, but it should certainly represent a bit of a stumble in DeSantis’ self-congratulation tour … and a reason to think again about the speed with which already lax social distancing rules are being dropped.
It’s also worth noting that Florida isn’t the only state with a spike in pneumonia cases not attributed to either flu or COVID-19. Across the country, the total number of deaths logged to COVID-19, flu, or pneumonia was 139,925 on May 27.