At this point, we already know that Florida’s COVID-19 cases are rising “at an alarming rate,” as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on Thursday.
But it’s become more cumbersome for the average Floridian to find detailed information about the pandemic that was easily available until a couple of months ago. After Gov. Ron DeSantis essentially declared victory on the pandemic by canceling all local restrictions in May, the state scaled back reporting data to the public. With cases down and vaccines widely available, the state Department of Health went from releasing reports of coronavirus numbers on a daily basis to a weekly basis and it stopped releasing hospital data and classifying deaths by county.
Turns out, though, we haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet, and Florida now accounts for 20% of all cases in the country.
It’s time for the DOH to start sharing that data with the public in a comprehensive manner again.
Florida still is gathering such data, just not releasing it like it used to.
Much of that information can still be found in various reports and databases from the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jason Salemi, a University of South Florida epidemiologist, told the Herald Editorial Board. He added that the CDC has gotten a lot better at gathering that information from states and sharing it.
Salemi uses those federal reports to complement state data to update his own online COVID dashboard, which has been a lifesaver for journalists and Floridians looking for one-stop information about the pandemic. But the point is that Florida should make that information more easily available to the public and not rely on private citizens with the knowledge and time to dig up that data.
Crucial information should be at Floridians’ fingertips right now. Only if they are armed with the best data can they make decisions for their health and that of their loved ones, as DeSantis and many Republicans believe they should be left alone to do.
Salemi believes the Department of Health has limited its public data sharing for a “good reason.” Gathering, analyzing and releasing that information is time consuming, and “I’m hoping this is freeing” DOH staff to focus on fighting the pandemic, he said.
We hope he is right.
But we have also seen a pattern of Florida obfuscating information since the beginning of the pandemic. The state spent a year stonewalling and evading requests for information about vital matters such as the number of COVID deaths recorded by medical examiners’ offices and details about contact tracing to see where transmission was occurring.
It was only after the Herald and other news organizations filed a public-records lawsuit in April 2020 that the DeSantis administration began releasing detailed information about coronavirus fatalities at long-term-care facilities. The data showed that, as of May 2020, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities accounted for one in three coronavirus deaths in the state.
Florida ranks second-worst in the nation for vaccination rates among nursing home staff. The state has stopped releasing information about individual long-term-care facilities, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Some of that information is available through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website, but it’s only updated biweekly. The state used to publish that data daily.
Before DeSantis prematurely declared the end of the pandemic in Florida, the state’s information sharing wasn’t perfect — and we had to fight for it — but it provided Floridians with more easily accessed data to help them make more-informed health decisions.
Now that we’re back in the crosshairs of the coronavirus, it’s time the Department of Health make transparency a priority again.