Florida needs transparency on COVID-19 death statistics

It’s important that we have accurate data to inform these life-or-death decisions. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, Floridians were getting updates on COVID-19 deaths from two sources, the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Medical Examiners Commission (MEC). 

Now, as Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing to reopen the state, his administration has ordered the MEC to not release its death statistics to the public.

The MEC keeps a distinct death count from the Department of Health, based on deaths reported by county medical examiners. Data from the MEC has frequently conflicted with figures from the Department of Health, showing more deaths from COVID-19.    

In a time where the Florida state government is rolling out a plan to reopen certain sectors of the economy, it is important that we have accurate data to inform these life-or-death decisions. Instead, the governor appears to be putting a public relations spin on the crisis while simultaneously withholding potentially crucial information.

The difference between the numbers released by the Department of Health and the MEC is not insignificant. On April 11, for example, the MEC counted 461 deaths in Florida compared to the Department of Health reporting 419 deaths. On average, the MEC death count was 10 percent higher than the Department of Health’s numbers, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The reason these two institutions appear to be using different tracking methods is unclear. The higher numbers from medical examiners could include visitors from other states who died in Florida from COVID-19. DeSantis has argued that those visitors should not be counted in Florida’s numbers even if they died in Florida.

Regardless of the reason why the datasets differ, the fact that the state government is keeping one set of numbers away from the public is troubling. 

Dr. Stephen Nelson, chairman of the MEC, said Wednesday that this data should be public information under Florida law in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

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

For a governor that’s rolling out steps to open the state back up, it’s all the more important that he exemplifies transparency. Floridians have a right to know about the number of COVID-19-related deaths from this source. 

It is critical that our leaders take this information seriously and do not seek to undermine data that may reveal a more accurate representation of this pandemic’s effects.

Jared Sellick is a senior studying political science.