Health experts question COVID-19 data discrepancies in Florida

Several Florida hospitals have claimed the Florida Department of Health is publishing inaccurate data related to COVID-19.
Several Florida hospitals have claimed the Florida Department of Health is publishing inaccurate data related to COVID-19. | Reuters/STEFAN WERMUTH

The integrity of COVID-19 data is being questioned in Florida after a motorcycle crash was recorded as a COVID-related death, 100% positivity rates have been reported and a scientist claimed to have been fired for not manipulating data for the state.

Orange County Health Officer Raul Pino told FOX35 Orlando that a man in his 20s died in a motorcycle accident and that his death was recorded as a COVID-19 death. Pino said he argued with the state about the cause of death not being related to COVID-19 to no avail. 

“The individual didn’t die from COVID-19. … [He] died in the crash,” Pino said. “But you could actually argue that it could have been the COVID-19 that caused him to crash. I don’t know the conclusion of that one.”

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In a statement earlier this week, the Florida Department of Health said that a COVID-19 death is recorded when the virus is an immediate or underlying cause, or if the death does not meet exclusion criteria, which includes motor-vehicle accidents.

Questions about the authenticity of the state’s reporting were raised Wednesday after the largest health system in southwest Florida, Lee Health, said that a recent daily report from the state suggesting that there were 100% positive results from multiple labs were wrong. 

The Fort Myers News-Press reports that Lee Health has recorded an 18% overall positivity rate in their tested patients.

"We are aware of a report by the Florida Department of Health that shows 100% of Lee Memorial Hospital Lab COVID-19 tests were reported as positive," Lee Health spokesman Jonathon Little said in a statement. “We are working with the department to resolve this discrepancy."

The Department of Health blamed incomplete reporting from labs for any discrepancy in a statement released to media.

“In recent days, the Florida Department of Health noticed that some smaller, private labs weren’t reporting negative test result data to the state,” the statement read. “The Department immediately began working with those labs to ensure that all results were being reported in order to provide comprehensive and transparent data.”

The Department of Health has released daily COVID-19 statistics since March 16, according to a report by The Palm Beach Post

The first report on March 16 included 42 testing labs, 29 of which showed 100% positive or 100% negative tests. Lee Health results first appeared in the data on March 27, which included five tests all recorded as positive.

According to Little, Lee Health facilities have sent accurate information to the Department of Health and always report COVID-related deaths. 

NHC Healthcare, another prominent hospital system in Florida, noted a 100% positivity rate posted by the state at one of its labs.

NCH spokesman Shawn McConnell told The Fort Myers News-Press that NCH's overall positive rate is 14%. 

The Florida Department of Health appeared to have fixed the discrepancies in the latest state report released Friday morning.

The report shows Lee Health’s positivity rate at 18%, with no locations showing 100%.

This is not the first instance of faulty data reporting claims in the state. 

In late June, scientist Rebekah Jones told NPR that she was fired from The Florida Department of Health for not manipulating data.

“I was asked by The Department of Health leadership to manually change numbers,” Jones said. “This was a week before the reopening plan officially kicked off into phase one.”

While the latest concerns in Florida surrounded inaccurately-high positive test rates, Jones claimed that she was asked to lower and manipulate numbers to support the state’s reopening plan. 

She said that the numbers she would submit were often the opposite of what was anticipated. She initially complied with the guidelines on compiling data at first. But she was then asked not to include counties with fewer than 75,000 residents and to lower the number of positive tests. She said she refused. 

“It was very clear at that point that the science behind the supposedly science-driven plan didn't matter because the plan was already made,” Jones told NPR. “... they had already made the plan, and I hadn't even shown them the results yet.”

Jones said she was dismissed because she refused to manipulate data to fit the reopening plan’s expectations. Shortly after she was dismissed, a new vendor produced statistics that “magically fit the reopening plan,” she noted. 

According to The Florida Health Department, there are more than 327,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state as of Friday evening. Meanwhile, Disney World parks are reopening and hosting the NBA’s bubble-season plan this month.

“Getting through this pandemic requires unity of purpose,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted on Thursday. “I’m 100% confident we are going to get through this.”

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