Florida: Total COVID deaths 3,000 higher than previously reported


Throughout the 2 1/2 years of the pandemic, there have been numerous accusations of "cooking the books", "hiding deaths" and so forth thrown around at various administrations at the state and federal level. Some of these have proven to be false, others to be accurate, and many to be somewhere in between, depending on your perspective.

Perhaps no state-level administration has been subjected to as many accusations of "hiding data" as that of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In my own case, the biggest data discrepancy I've written about regarding Florida was the massive vaccination rate outlier status of Miami-Dade County...a discrepancy which, at least in that case, turned out to be more about the legal residence of those vaccinated rather than whether the vaccinations actually took place or not.

That brings me to today's Florida COVID data update, courtesy of Ian Hodgson of the Tampa Bay Times:

Florida’s health department undercounted COVID cases and deaths, state audit says

Florida’s COVID-19 data was so inaccurate, incomplete and delayed during the first months of the pandemic that government officials and the public may not have had necessary information to determine the effectiveness of the state’s COVID-19 precautions and the best plan to fight the virus, according to a state report released Monday.

Covering the state’s pandemic response from March to October 2020, the yearlong analysis by the state auditor general found missing case and death data, unreported demographic details and incomplete contact tracing as the virus spread across the state. In addition, the report concluded that state health officials did not perform routine checks on the data to ensure accuracy and did not follow up on discrepancies.

...Missing demographic data wasn’t unique to Florida, said Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University, but it is “the most critical piece of information that we lacked.”

The most critical data correction from my perspective?

Auditors also found more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 deaths reported by physicians that didn’t appear in the state’s list of deaths.

Many missing records were likely due to typos or clerical errors, the report concluded. However, the report found state records were missing or significantly delayed for almost 40% of missing deaths it reviewed.

Department of Health officials told auditors that death reports may take up to 60 days to appear in the official state count — “a very long time to wait to see how deadly an emerging disease is,” Blauer said.

3,000 deaths? Yikes. For context, the official Florida COVID death rate as of last Friday was 74,859, meaning that the actual Florida COVID death toll is 4% higher than previously thought.

Unfortunately the audit report itself doesn't break those ~3,000 deaths (the total is either 2,495 or 3,082 depending on which method cited you use) by county.

Beyond that key number, the rest of the audit report isn't pretty either. For instance:

To facilitate a timely and appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was important for the Department to ensure that publicly reported data was accurate and complete and stratified by key demographic variables such as race, sex, ethnicity, age, and zip code. We analyzed the data for the 5,539,899 profiles for which COVID-19 tests were recorded in Merlin during the period March 1, 2020, through October 9, 2020, and noted that important demographic data was not always available or the data fields contained anomalies that limited the accuracy and usefulness of the information for reporting and for monitoring outbreaks.

Specifically, we found that of the 5,539,899 profiles:

  • 3,263,328 (58.9 percent) did not include the individual’s ethnicity.
  • 2,851,123 (51.5 percent) did not include the individual’s race.
  • 318,502 were missing the individual’s state of residence and another 556 had invalid state abbreviations, including entries containing numbers, symbols, or “XX”.
  • 318,447 had blank or null values in the city data field and another 320 had invalid city names, including numbers or entries of only one or two characters.
  • 239,656 had blank or null values for the street address and another 10,313 had anomalous entries for the street address.
  • 136,688 had blank or null values for the county, while another 2,406 had “state” entered in the county data field rather than a county name.
  • 75,828 did not include the individual’s gender.
  • 18,743 did not list the individual’s age and another 1,741 included reported ages ranging from 110 to 267 years old.
  • 11,152 had blank or null values for the zip code and another 2,110 had anomalous values.

To be fair, it's entirely possible that other states performed just as poorly or worse than Florida on these fronts, but unless/until a similar audit is done of them it's impossible to say just how badly Florida's health department did relative to other states.