TAMPA, Fla. — Florida has recorded 17,000 unexpected or excess deaths from preventable health issues other than COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Some were likely because the pandemic led people to put off checkups, surgeries and other preventive health measures, according to a new study. Excess deaths are defined as those that exceed the number of expected deaths based on historical averages.
The number reflects a trend that began in 2020 when premature deaths from preventable causes in the state rose from 174 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 180 in 2020, according to an analysis released this month by the Commonwealth Fund, a New York foundation that supports independent research on health.
In a state the size of Florida, with 21 million residents, that’s a large increase in a measure that historically barely changes, said David Radley, a senior scientist with the group.
The analysis of preventable deaths is based on data sent by the state to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventable health issues include drug overdoses, diabetes, measles, liver cancer, some heart diseases and infections. The number reported by the Commonwealth excludes those whose death was attributed to COVID-19.
Hospitals remained open during the worst COVID-19 surges in Florida, but many people may have opted to delay treatments and screenings when visitors were limited or banned and hospitals were struggling to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients. That could mean, for example, stage 2 cancers that might have been caught progressed to stage 4 when there is often little doctors can do, Radley said.
“People still had other health care needs, but so much hospital capacity was being used to treat people with COVID,” Radley said. “There was social distancing, and a lot of people didn’t get health care when they might have needed it.”
Overall, the number of excess deaths in Florida, including COVID-19, since February 2020 is more than 80,000, Radley said.
The state’s preventable deaths were also boosted by a high number of drug overdoses. The state’s 35 deaths per 100,000 people was above the national average of 28.
The Commonwealth Fund’s annual report assesses the performance of each state’s health care system using 56 different measures culled from agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. This year’s report was the first to include a full year of data since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
It found that every state reported an increase in preventable deaths, with Florida ranked as 26th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Hawaii had the lowest rate of preventable deaths — 110 per 100,000 population — while Mississippi had the highest at 596 per 100,000.
This year, the study included several new indicators to measure how well states dealt with the unprecedented public health emergency caused by COVID-19. Those included vaccination rates and how much intensive care unit capacity states had during infection waves.
States with traditionally high-performing health care systems that ranked well for quality of care and had fewer uninsured people coped best, the report found.
But the study found that the pandemic pushed hospitals to a breaking point, with a high number of days reported when intensive care units operated in excess of 80% capacity. Florida intensive care units averaged above 80% capacity for 197 days, the study found.
“COVID-19 has pushed all states and their health systems to their limits, exposing severe gaps in infrastructure and access to care,” said David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund.
Florida ranked in the middle of the pack, at 25th place, on its response to COVID-19. It took Florida 335 days to get at least 70% of residents aged 12 and up vaccinated.
Florida’s 36th-place ranking for overall health care leaves it in the bottom quarter of all states. That partly stems from the state’s high number of uninsured people — 18% of adults and 7% of children had no health insurance in 2020.