Is Florida's Covid death toll an undercount?


Florida Governor Ron DeSantis often boasts that his state has fared better than most amid the pandemic, despite staying open for business and remaining without a mask mandate. 

But the state’s relatively low per capita death toll may be higher than the official figures. 

A recent study suggested that the state saw more than 19,000 ‘excess deaths’ between March and September of last year – or 15 percent more than would be expected in a typical year. 

Of those, 14,317 deaths were attributed to to COVID-19, leaving nearly 5,000 deaths ‘unexplained.’ 

If these were caused by Covid, that would mean that instead of the 33,338 deaths currently recorded on the state health department’s website, Florida’s death toll is closer to 50,000. 

It’s impossible to know how many of these mystery excess deaths were caused by COVID-19, and how many the pandemic might have led to indirectly, as a result of foregone care.  

It wouldn’t be the first time that Florida has come under scrutiny for being less than transparent in its COVID-19 data. 

However, it’s worth noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that ‘excess deaths’ were about 20 percent above the annual average nationwide last year, with Covid deaths undercounted in all states. 

Nearly 5,000 of Florida's excess deaths between March and September of last year were 'unexplained' according to the report's authors

Nearly 5,000 of Florida’s excess deaths between March and September of last year were ‘unexplained’ according to the report’s authors 

Florida's excess deaths (purple) spiked particularly high between June and September, but at other times, the national average (blue) has risen well above Florida's

Florida’s excess deaths (purple) spiked particularly high between June and September, but at other times, the national average (blue) has risen well above Florida’s 

Most Spring Breakers are college age, and less at-risk from COVID-19, but they could easily spread the virus to other more vulnerable people, which experts worry will lead to yet another rise in coronavirus deaths in the state

Most Spring Breakers are college age, and less at-risk from COVID-19, but they could easily spread the virus to other more vulnerable people, which experts worry will lead to yet another rise in coronavirus deaths in the state 

Florida ranks 27th in the nation for its per capita death toll, according to data from Becker’s Hospital Review.  

And it may come as a surprise that Florida, which has taken an open-all-hours approach to the pandemic hasn’t suffered more fatalities. 

At this point, countless modeling studies have suggested that earlier lockdowns and more widespread mask-wearing would have prevented countless Covid deaths. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis often boasts that his state has fared better than most amid the pandemic, despite staying open for business and remaining without a mask mandate

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis often boasts that his state has fared better than most amid the pandemic, despite staying open for business and remaining without a mask mandate

But Florida’s middling rank for per capita coronaviru deaths seems to fly in the face of that, much as its outspoken governor has flouted the recommendations of CDC experts. 

‘I see, in many parts of our country, a sad state of affairs: schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed,’ Republican Governor DeSantis said in a March 2 State of the State address. 

‘While so many other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.’ 

But Florida is still the state with the fourth highest death toll and the second largest population in the U.S. 

California – to which Florida is often compared as a polar opposite in pandemic strategy – is the most populous state in the union and has the highest Covid death toll in the country with over 59,000 fatalities.  

It ranks two spots below Florida for per capita fatalities. 

On the other hand, California’s per capita deaths rose by 43 percent last week, while Florida’s fell by 36 percent, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).   

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All of this, however, assumes that a COVID-19 death is counted the same way everywhere. 

And unfortunately, this is not the case. 

In fact, this issue became a scandal in Florida in the early months of the pandemic. 

Nationwide, the vast majority of excess deaths - those exceeding the annual average (orange line) - were caused by COVID-19 (blue) but a small share are not attributed to the infection (green, above the orange line)

Nationwide, the vast majority of excess deaths – those exceeding the annual average (orange line) – were caused by COVID-19 (blue) but a small share are not attributed to the infection (green, above the orange line) 

Every state saw excess deaths in 2020, ranging from just a handful in Hawaii to more than 60,000 in California

Every state saw excess deaths in 2020, ranging from just a handful in Hawaii to more than 60,000 in California 

Back in April – when Covid death counts of hundreds, not thousands, or hundreds of thousands, were  still alarming – the Tampa Bay Times discovered that the toll calculated by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission was about 10 percent higher that the official state record. 

The Tampa Bay Times estimated that at least 40 deaths were missing from the official tally. 

Medical examiners – who were appointed by the governor – had to certify each death at the time, which was creating a considerable backlog in the count of deaths. 

Plus, while the medical examiners counted all deaths for which COVID-19 was ruled the cause cause, the health department included only the deaths of Florida residents in its tally. 

The health department then withheld the list, claiming it had to be reviewed and redacted before it could be released publicly, according to the Times. 

Eventually, in August, a rule was passed so that medical examiners no longer had to certify Covid deaths. 

And similar gaffs plagued the states test positivity and case counts, raising further suspicion over how well the state’s lax restrictions were really keeping COVID-19 in check. 

These loose rules were the reason that the author of the recent report on Florida’s excess deaths wanted to investigate, but his conclusions don’t confirm any foul play. 

The approximately 5,000 excess deaths ‘were directly or indirectly associated with COVID-19,’ lead study author Moosa Tatar, a public health researcher at University of Nebraska and University of Utah, told DailyMail.com. 

‘But I haven’t compared Florida with other states, there might be excess deaths for other states. 

‘Florida was one of the first states that relaxed these restrictions…my intention was just to have a clear picture of the impact of COVID-19 on the [excess] deaths.’ 

In fact, the CDC’s excess deaths data shows a ‘predicted’ number of deaths from all causes and from COVID-19. 

And in most states, at some period in the pandemic, there have been more deaths than a typical year, including some that are not thought to have been caused by COVID-19 directly.  

Florida, however, could be set for another surge, as Spring Breakers flood the state and cases tick up. 

Given the demographics of the revelers – mostly college students – most of these infections won’t be deadly. 

But as the largely maskless partiers interact with other more vulnerable people and spread the virus a rise in COVID-19 deaths could follow in the coming weeks. 



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