It didn’t take an audit by the Florida Auditor General to confirm what many of us suspected all along: Florida’s COVID-19 pandemic data was, and most likely remains, flawed. The words “inaccurate” and “incomplete” are laced throughout the 30-page audit report, along with other descriptions that don’t stir confidence.
“…The number of entities reporting data, apparent inaccurate or incomplete data reported to the state by those entities, and the lack of effective access controls in the systems used to gather data, impacted the state’s ability to accurately report COVID-19 data at the beginning of the pandemic,” the report said.
FOR SUBSCRIBERS:Florida missed 17% of COVID deaths early in the pandemic, had incomplete info on cases, auditor says
Florida undercounted COVID cases and deaths and botched analyzing and collecting test results, confirming the disinterested attitude of Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, whose anti-mask policies helped the virus spread.
If authentic data is important to Florida health agencies, the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Health and the Division of Emergency Management didn’t show it — not to state auditors and certainly not to the public. With pandemic deaths in Florida now totaling 74,800, the DeSantis Administration must do better.
COVID-19 no longer strikes fear in the hearts of many Floridians. Gone are the long lines for coronavirus testing, the crowded ICUs, overworked medical staffs, and infected patients dying on hospital ventilators. Take a glimpse almost anywhere, whether it’s the Atlantic Avenue promenade, the hotspots along Clematis Street or the aisles of the local grocer, and you’ll see a populace devoid of masks and not displaying any lingering concern about the virus.
There should be concern. Last month the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,234 cases of hospitalized adults from COVID in Florida, an uptick from the March and December reports. Another sign of trouble: while the Omicron variant is milder than earlier Delta variant, new, more contagious Omicron subvariants have been found in the Southeast U.S., including just a few dozen miles away from us, in Miami-Dade County.
FOR SUBSCRIBERS:COVID comeback: Much of Florida at high risk of straining hospitals; indoor masks urged
With a more highly contagious virus still present, we can’t afford a tepid response, much less to rely on shoddy data from the responsible state agencies. Bad data impacts how well public health agencies and the wider medical community can respond with effective care. Unfortunately, after the auditor general’s office examined nearly 11.3 million lab test results and 730,000 documented COVID cases statewide, the auditors found much of the data lacking. If ever the adage “garbage in, garbage out” applied, it’s here.
For example, the report found a majority — 51.5% — of the 5.5 million plus COVID test results failed to identify a patient’s race. Roughly 59% lacked ethnicity information and a much smaller but noticeable number, 75,828 results, had no indication of gender.
Auditors found that a lab that received more than $5.4 million from the state in July and August of 2020 failed to include ID numbers or dates for administered COVID tests, which resulted in a number of tests not making it into public reports about the virus.
There were other problems, including the failure to conduct initial contact tracing outreach, to routinely perform analyses to check the completeness of all reported test results and to document that hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities reported their daily census counts on available beds, staffing needs, ventilators in use and face mask inventory. Throw in the need to limit access to technology to limit the risk of unauthorized data modification, and the challenges become crystal clear.
The problem rests with the leadership priorities, perfectly illustrated by Gov. DeSantis’ and Dr. Ladapo’s recently successful bullying of the Special Olympics. The state leaders threatened a $27.5 million fine for requiring participants to be vaccinated against COVID. They’d rather make that their priority than bolstering state resources to detect and fight this or any future pandemic.
As for COVID data collection, limited government may sound good on the campaign trail but in the face of a public health crisis, a partisan talking point only goes so far. Florida’s health agencies need to be able to function.
The auditor’s report went out of its way to praise “the great effort” made by the state employees in responding to the outbreak. In the face of bureaucratic limitations, they rose to the occasion. The same can’t be said for those at the top.