Ron DeSantis

Too Low? Too High? Data Questions Rise With COVID Death Toll

A fired state employee says Florida puts a sunny face on virus statistics, while one prominent skeptic says death toll is inaccurately inflated -- and he's the governor.

NBC Universal, Inc.

What to Know

  • The data behind the pandemic is being questioned by everyone from the governor, down to the data scientist his administration fired
  • Rebekah Jones said on MSNBC that Florida has taken "quite a few steps to make the numbers look better"
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis himself has raised questions about his own data, saying earlier this week the number of deaths are being inflated

In one corner, you have a data analyst fired by the Florida Department of Health saying the state is massaging statistics to make the pandemic look better than it is.

In the other corner, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who tried to downplay his own Health Department's tally of deaths related to COVID-19, claiming the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells the state to include people who die of accidents or suicide, as long as they had tested positive for the virus.

Each day since DeSantis made that statement, NBC 6 has asked the state to provide evidence supporting his claim about the CDC guidance.

The state has provided no response.

Citing one case where one medical examiner may have mistakenly listed a motorcycle accident victim with the virus as a COVID-related death, DeSantis said this Monday in Orlando:

"A lot of people are, like, 'How is that possible? You get hit by a car and then you're attributing it to coronavirus?' And so I want (the Department of Health) to go back and look. I think, though, the reason that's the case is because what CDC has said is anybody that tests positive, if they then die, that's a death amongst cases. But I think the public should be, know, say okay, if someone commits suicide, for example, and then they turn up positive, should that be attributed to the coronavirus? And from the perspective of the state's reporting, they're just going to keep doing it the CDC's way."

A search of CDC policies online also did not turn up any evidence to support the governor's statement.

So while the head of state questions whether the 5,653 Florida resident deaths listed by his own health department make the state look worse than it is, the former data analyst is suing, claiming her firing was related to her exposing manipulation of statistics to make the state look better.

"Florida has actually taken quite a few steps to make the numbers look better," Rebekah Jones said Friday on MSNBC.

As an example, she and others trained in data have cited the state's "new case" positivity rate, which counts multiple negative results from the same person when they repeatedly test negative, but excludes positive test results from people who have previously tested positive once.

Jones said that gives extra weight to negative cases and lowers the positivity rate.

Over the last month, the new case positivity rate has been 13.2%, 2.5 percentage points below the positivity rate for all tests, 15.7%.

In a response to questions from NBC 6, the state health department said, "The percent positivity for new cases provides a daily snapshot of the proportion of persons tested in Florida or a particular county (this metric is used in both reports) among those who are susceptible to the virus who tested positive that day. This is the measure that best reflects the current spread of virus in Florida."

When it comes to determining cause of death, the state's medical examiners make those findings, reporting to the state if the cause or underlying or contributing cause of death was COVID-19.

But the state has not responded to questions about how the health department is determining COVID-related deaths in its overall count.

Jones said whatever the state is doing with the numbers, science is taking a back seat in the process.

"That’s all this is about," she said of the state's image-making. "It's been very clear for quite a while now that they stopped caring about the science, the scientists and what they said and started moving more on politics."

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