Getting accurate local information about COVID-19 is literally a matter of life and death.
Data on COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths guides people to make informed decisions about needed preparation and precautions. Rising county numbers might cause businesses to require masks that help prevent the spread of the virus, health-care facilities to ration resources in anticipation of being inundated with cases, or those who are unvaccinated to finally get their shots.
But Florida has made it increasingly difficult for the public to access these numbers. The state Department of Health in June stopped posting daily reports online that broke down information such as deaths by county, shifting to instead releasing far less detailed information on a weekly basis.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, explained the change at the time by saying that declining cases meant “our state is returning to normal.” Much has changed since then, however, as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has caused cases, hospitalizations and deaths to soar — yet DOH continues to prevent the public from accessing accurate, local and timely COVID information.
Some daily information about Florida is posted on federal websites, but it lacks the detailed data that DOH provided before scaling back to weekly reports and can vary significantly from state numbers. Members of the public seeking this information on the local level face a confusing mishmash of approaches among counties.
The USA TODAY Network — Florida recently surveyed the state and identified just six county health departments that release local death tolls to the public. While the hospital systems in some counties report this information, others counties refuse to disclose local data on COVID deaths or provide incomplete information through other government agencies.
A lawsuit filed Aug. 30 by the nonprofit Florida Center for Government Accountability and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, alleges that DOH is violating the state’s open records laws by refusing to release more detailed information. The lawsuit aims to “obtain critical records that the department previously published daily on its website so that the public will have knowledge of and the ability to scrutinize their government’s response to the rampaging virus.
“This is the paramount goal of open government laws,” the suit states.
A lawsuit shouldn’t be needed to force the DeSantis administration to follow Florida’s open government laws, which are supposed to be a national model. The governor himself said recently that it would be “appropriate” to release county-level COVID data, but the actions taken so far by his administration have only made it more difficult to gauge the pandemic’s impact in Florida.
DOH has even changed the way that COVID deaths are reported statewide. The Miami Herald reported that on Aug. 10, DOH started to tally new deaths by the date the person died rather than when the deaths were reported — creating a lag in numbers that gave the appearance of a pandemic in decline at a time when cases were soaring.
Floridians need accurate, local and timely COVID data to make informed decisions about protecting their health and preparing their local communities when cases are on the rise. If DeSantis is going to refuse to take the pandemic more seriously on the state level, the least he can do is give local residents the information they need to take these steps on their own.
— USA Today Editorial Board