Accuracy Of Florida Department Of Health’s Reporting & Real COVID-19 Deaths

Recently we’ve learned a lot about what we can and can’t rely on from the Florida Department of Health’s daily reporting. Based on a combination of data from the CDC, FAU’s COVID-19 tracker, and the Florida Department of Health, we know that the positivity rate has been artificially high due to several labs only reporting positive cases. Also, daily reported “new” cases contain positive tests that are up to 30 days old and reported deaths could be up to eight weeks old.

It’s understandable that many would be skeptical of what’s real and what isn’t when we get the daily reporting from the Florida Department of Health. It’s that much more frustrating when the daily reports are being used by local officials to make decisions that profoundly impact our lives. While the daily information isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, there is one trend I’ve picked up on that paints a picture of how reliable the FDOH’s overall information proves to be, and what their margin of error has been.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve periodically provided the CDC’s “excess death” data as a way to provide perspective about the reality of the virus. Recently, I spoke with CDC director Robert Redfield about the metric and he validated my use of the data as a cross-reference for COVID reported deaths in Florida. The CDC’s “excess death” metric, measures a five-year average for total deaths and adjusts for population changes. If no one had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and if no Floridian was ever listed as a COVID death, the stats would be the same. According to the CDC, data is incomplete for at least eight weeks as there’s a lag from deaths occurring and all death certificates being issued. This means the week ending May 30th is the most recent and contains mostly complete information for Florida. 

Using this CDC data, we've learned that the first week Florida experienced excess deaths is shown to be April 4th. And, Florida experienced excess deaths for every week with complete data since. During that eight-week period, Florida was expected to have 36,844 deaths. The actual total was 39,963, resulting in 3,119 excess deaths. On May 30th the total number of coronavirus deaths reported by the Florida Department of Health was 2,447. This data illustrates Florida’s official tallies underreported related deaths by 672 deaths.

It stands to reason that not all people ill with COVID-19 have been tested and therefore not all related deaths diagnosed either. What I can tell you, is that even in subsequent weeks with incomplete data the trends are similar. Are there apparent irregularities in reporting occasionally? Yes. Are there opportunities for double-counting, especially with antibody tests? Yes. Is it possible some people who passed away would have died of something else if not the virus? Yes. But on balance, we have a net underdiagnosis of COVID-19 positive tests in Florida of around 2% for the complete information to date. By objective measures, the totals you hear and see by the Florida Department of Health are understated slightly with a low margin of error. The biggest issue remains the daily reporting including significantly dated information.

Photo by: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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