DeSantis Omits Data on Child COVID Rates as He Touts Decision to Open Schools

In a speech and a tweet this week lauding his decision to keep schools open, Florida's governor omitted more than 50,000 coronavirus cases confirmed in children over 14, comparing the state's infection rate among children under 15 to other states' rates for those under 20.

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As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis travels the state promoting his performance fighting the coronavirus, he often points to a relatively low infection rate among children — even after his administration compelled school districts to offer in-person learning.

But this week, the NBC 6 Investigators found, he twice misled the public about how Florida stacks up to other states when it comes to infection rates among school-age children.

During comments Monday lambasting Democrats for, he claimed, putting teachers' unions "ahead of the well-being of our children," he touted how well Florida protected school children from the virus, compared to other states.

"We’ve been in-person (learning) as much as anybody in the country. And yet we’re 34th out of 50 states and DC for COVID-19 cases on a per capita basis for children," he said.

That is not true, unless -- as the governor did -- you ignore more than 50,000 children over the age of 14 who contracted the virus.

By using a statistic for children under 15, he effectively removed high school students from the data he cited twice this week to validate his decision to offer in-person classes to all public schools students.

The states DeSantis was comparing Florida to do, in fact, include those older students.

When states reporting cases among children under 18 are compared to Florida's rate for the same age group, Florida ranks ninth -- not 34th -- according to an NBC 6 analysis of state Department of Health and U.S. Census Bureau data.

The governor compounded his misstatement of the data Tuesday in a tweet to his more than 717,000 followers.

"Our kids belong in school and Florida's decision to keep the schools open was the right thing to do," he said in the tweet, which as of Wednesday night had been liked or retweeted more than 12,000 times. "When compared to other states of similar size, Florida has fewer pediatric cases per 100,000."

To emphasize the point, he attached a graph purporting to show Florida's "rate of pediatric cases" to those of Ohio, Illinois and California, which has nearly twice the population of Florida.

But the rate he assigned to Florida -- 3,794 cases per 100,000 -- excluded anyone over 14. The numbers for Ohio and Illinois included anyone under 20, and California's anyone under 18.

The governor's office confirmed Wednesday it pulled that data from a Feb. 4 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association -- a report that specifically does not rank states, and clearly notes that data only for Florida and Utah was cut off at above age 14.

In a statement to NBC 6, the governor's office said, "While there may be subtle differences in rates of cases for different age brackets used by states (0-14, 0-17, 0-18 etc.), these differences do not prohibit a general side by side comparison."

If the differences were "subtle," as his office suggested, that may be true.

But our investigation finds the differences are not subtle.

Those differences undercut DeSantis' argument when he compared Florida's rates for children under 15 to other states' rates that also included older children.

Remember: DeSantis said Florida ranked 34th in pediatric case rates (when it in fact ranks ninth among states reporting cases for all under 18 years old).

And, when the latest available comparable data for the states in DeSantis' graph was analyzed by NBC 6, comparing the same age groups, consider the not-so-subtle differences we uncovered:

  • Illinois' rate was not 42% higher than Florida's; it was about the same;
  • Ohio's rate was not 4% higher than Florida's; it was 25% lower; and,
  • California's rate was not 25% higher than Florida's; it was less than a third of that, around 7% higher.

None of this refutes DeSantis' contention that he "did the right thing" in opening schools more than the other states did.

And his office said he was not asserting that his decision caused children to fare better than those elsewhere.

"The graph is not intended to argue causation," his office's communications staff said in an email. "Rather, it is intended to illustrate, through publicly available and standardized data, that there is no demonstrated difference in cases in states where schools are open versus states where schools are closed."

Still, DeSantis has rhetorically connected his decision to open schools to what he claimed was his state's place in the bottom third of states when it comes to pediatric infection rates; it is instead in the top 10.

In his comments Monday, DeSantis went on to blast the CDC and Democrats for not taking the lead from Florida when it comes to recommending opening schools.

 "That is a disgrace," he said. "That is not science. That is putting politics ahead of what’s right for kids. That is putting politics and special interests ahead of what the evidence and observed experience says."

The next day, he sent his tweet.

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