As COVID Deaths Soar, Florida Curtails Public Records on Which Counties Hit Hardest

A lawsuit filed by a state legislator and a nonprofit government accountability group demands the state resume giving specifics on deaths and hospitalizations.

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As COVID cases and hospitalizations in Florida recede from their all-time peaks, the death count is soaring to record levels -- more than 300 people dying each day for a stretch in late August, with more deaths being added once they are confirmed.

But the state is no longer releasing what was public information revealing details about those victims and the counties they lived in when they were struck with a virus that has now killed 48,273 Floridians.

State Rep. Carlos Smith (D-Orlando) and a nonprofit government accountability group are suing the Department of Health seeking to force the state to cough up the data.

"They claim that the basic local COVID data that we were requesting via public record was confidential, which is totally bogus," Smith said. "It can't be confidential as they claim now without it having been confidential before."

Until June 3, the state released a detailed two-page report for each of the 67 counties, detailing cases, hospitalizations and deaths broken down by 10 age cohorts.

Since then, it's released weekly summaries that reveal how many new cases were detected in each county (along with the counties' positivity and vaccination rates)

"The public doesn’t have access to real time information about a deadly virus," Smith said.

The information is being curtailed as the death count soars as more deaths are confirmed to be related to COVID. Thursday, the CDC reported a record 330 Floridians died on August 20, the start of a five-day stretch where the seven-day average topped 300 deaths per day.

Previously that average peaked at 228 during the summer 2020 surge and 201 during the winter wave of virus that followed the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

The state would not tell NBC 6 why it is withholding data that was previously public. Instead, a health department spokesperson pointed to county data it provides to the CDC.

But that data is incomplete and does not break down the deaths at the county level by age or other demographics.

Nor does it reveal in which county the person resided, only where they died -- so rural residents transferred to other counties with better hospital care would not be counted in their county of residence -- something the state data did do.

Also, under its privacy policy, the CDC suppresses thousands of results in smaller counties.

Smith said it's not enough data for Floridians "to protect themselves and their families with informed decisions on what’s happening in the deadly virus in their area."

For example, the data the state is now keeping concealed could be used to research whether children in counties with school mask mandates are faring better or worse than those attending schools that have not defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on school mask mandates, which a judge has now found to be illegal.

The data is needed, Smith said, "so that we can understand not only what the trends are in our community but possibly glean from that data ... what type of impact our mitigation efforts are having both in the schools and in our communities."

The lawsuit, which asks for an expedited hearing, has been assigned to the same Leon County Circuit judge who ruled against DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.

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