FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Just as a highly contagious new delta variant sent Florida into a vicious COVID-19 surge, the state Department of Health changed the way it reports cases and deaths attributed to the virus.

The result: Florida no longer provides a real-time picture of how COVID is affecting the state.

The most dramatic example is that Florida’s daily death count had been trending upward since the end of June, but with the recent adjustments made by the state Department of Health, the number of deaths due to COVID appeared to decline dramatically over the past week. At least on paper.

Experts say the downward trend is not at all what’s really happening with COVID deaths in a state that continues to set records for the growing number of daily COVID cases and hospitalizations.

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Deaths in Florida are increasing but still below the large numbers seen during the summer spikes in 2020, experts say. A COVID tracker created by The New York Times shows as of Tuesday, Florida recorded a seven-day average of 141 deaths from the virus, a figure larger than 32 other states.

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In contrast, according to the information available on the website maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using the information provided by the state Department of Health, Florida’s seven-day average as of Tuesday is only about a third of that — 58 deaths.

“For Florida to move to a new system of reporting is technically correct, but in actuality, it is problematic because it distorts data,” said Bill Ku, a data scientist and former researcher at Columbia University who now runs covid19odds.com. “Deaths are not going down, and a lot of people are going to jump to the wrong conclusion about how they should carry on with their life.”

Florida changed its COVID reporting method Tuesday and now reports when cases or deaths actually occurred rather than when they were communicated to the state — allowing health officials to assign cases or deaths to days in the past rather than the present.

Health officials not only adjusted recent information but revised all numbers going back to the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Since Tuesday, Florida continued to revise its information based on the actual dates of cases or deaths, even adjusting some record-breaking daily case counts downward.

Regardless of the new process, the cumulative numbers for Florida remain high.

As of June 4, the only daily COVID information for Florida is available for review on a website maintained by the CDC with statistics provided by the Florida Department of Health. The CDC tracker also includes COVID cases and death information for every state.

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Ku said he tracks COVID indicators in other large states such as Texas, California and New York, and all report the way Florida had been giving its numbers to the CDC before making the change on Monday.

“Everyone’s death count is going up. No one’s is going down except Florida,” he said. ”No other state has so significantly restated their death count data recently.”

In recent weeks, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has credited his vaccination strategy with a lower death count in the state. At news briefings, he has repeatedly said that by prioritizing vaccinations for seniors first and in large numbers, hospitals are filled mostly with young, unvaccinated people who are less likely to die from COVID.

“Even among a lot of positive tests, you are seeing much less mortality that you did year-over-year,” DeSantis said at a Miami-area news conference earlier this week. “Would I rather have 5,000 cases among 20-year-olds or 500 cases among seniors? I would rather have the younger.”

Florida Department of Health spokeswoman Weesam Koury did not explain why the change in reporting occurred this week, a year and a half into the pandemic. Only a handful of states report COVID information using the method Florida has now adopted.

On Tuesday, Koury said the CDC had made a mistake in Monday’s daily case counts for Florida. The state and federal health agencies worked together to review and revise all the COVID information, she said.

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“We took this opportunity to ensure the data is as accurate as it can be,” Koury said. “We provided them a new data set based on our quality checks.”

Even before attributing the numbers mistake to the CDC, Florida and the federal agency had been at odds. In recent weeks the two parties have been battling over whether cruise lines can require passengers to provide proof they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus, airing their differences in court. At the same time, DeSantis and President Joe Biden have been publicly sparring over masks and other COVID restrictions.

The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for an explanation about Florida’s recent revisions in the COVID statistics. A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins, which runs its own COVID tracker, said some states revise death numbers upward as they review death certificates, but a full revision of all statistics is highly unusual.

At least one health expert says the apparent decrease in the death count will even itself out in time.

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida, has tracked Florida COVID data on his website throughout the pandemic. His charts also show the recent downturn in deaths based on revised data. “If you look at deaths based on when they occurred, they will be underestimated,” Salemi said.

Salemi said it may take weeks for Florida to see how deadly this virus is, since hospitalizations are rising but deaths tend to lag.

Salemi said he will be closely watching the total deaths in Florida’s weekly report, which is distributed on Fridays, to understand the toll. Last week, health officials reported 39,695 Florida residents died from COVID.

“I would expect to see more cumulative deaths this report than the previous two because hospitalizations have gone up,” he said.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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