Tampa Bay Times: Florida officials asked state’s medical examiners to withhold coronavirus death figures

The Times said the list from the medical examiners had previously been released in real time, but, after the newspaper reported that the tally was 10% higher than the health department’s tally, state officials directed that the list be reviewed and potentially redacted. The pause in reporting, the Times said, has been occurring for nine days.

The Florida Department of Health said in a statement Wednesday night they are following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that they had “spoken with counsel for Medical Examiners to explain concerns on disclosing personal identifiable information.”

“For Florida, going from where we are now to phase 1 is not a very big leap,” DeSantis said. “I think we will be able to be a small step for us. We will approach it in a very measured, thoughtful, and data-driven way.”

Florida currently has more than 33,000 coronavirus cases and more than 1,200 deaths from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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The Times said the medical examiners’ list doesn’t provide the names of the deceased, but does include demographic information, probable cause of death and a case summary. Dr. Stephen Nelson — the chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission, the group that released the list — said state officials told him they plan to remove cause of death and case descriptions from death counts, a move he said would render the information “meaningless,” according to the newspaper.

“This is no different than any other public record we deal with,” Nelson told the Times. “It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers have a right to know.”

CNN has reached out to the Medical Examiners Commission and DeSantis’ office for comment.

A spokesperson for the health department told the Times that the department held conference calls with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which provides administrative support for the Medical Examiners Commission, about privacy concerns for those who passed away from coronavirus.

The spokesperson said the health department did not provide a legal opinion, according to the newspaper.

The Times also said a spokesperson for one of the state health department’s county offices told the newspaper that the difference in figures between the two lists is because the department doesn’t include in its list “some snowbirds and other seasonal residents, along with visitors who died in Florida.” The medical examiners, on the other hand, count all people who died in Florida, according to the newspaper.

The spokesperson also pointed to a lag in reporting as a difference.

The Florida Department of Health said Wednesday “reporting deaths by residency is the appropriate method utilized to calculate disease rates, which allow for a more accurate analysis of disease impacts on populations through the incorporation of demographic data — a critical aspect of public health planning.”

CNN corresponded with two medical examiner offices in Florida who confirmed that medical examiners report deaths within their geographic jurisdiction and not by place of residence.

As a result, the state’s county-by-county Covid-19 death toll and the county-by-county death toll reported by medical examiners will not reconcile.

The Times noted that the difference in figures has been a concern for Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation, who sent a collective letter to DeSantis earlier this month asking for a “detailed explanation of the public health justification” for the difference in tracking methods.

The lawmakers also asked the governor to work with the health department and the medical examiners to make sure coronavirus cases are identified and reported accurately, according to the Times.

CNN’s Rosa Flores, Sara Weisfeldt and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.

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