The Florida Department of Health has underestimated COVID cases and deaths, the state audit says

Florida COVID-19 data was so inaccurate, incomplete and delayed in the first months of the pandemic that government officials and the public may not have needed information to be determined the effectiveness of state COVID-19 precautions and the best plan to fight the virus, according to a state report released Monday.

Covering the state’s pandemic response from March to October 2020, the state auditor-general’s one-year analysis found data on missing cases and deaths, unreported demographic details, and incomplete contact tracking as the virus spread throughout the state. In addition, the report concluded that state health officials did not perform routine checks on the data to ensure its accuracy and did not follow up on the discrepancies.

Yet a senior state health official, Department of Health spokesman Jeremy Redfern, said the auditor general’s report was flawed.

Redfern said “Some of the conclusions stem from (auditors’) misunderstanding of the purpose of different datasets,” adding that “the report does not address the tremendous progress we have made in modernizing our reporting systems.”

State auditors looked at a sample of 2,600 tests performed at three state testing facilities and found that state labs did not return results for nearly 60 percent of the tests. The report did not specify the locations of the three test sites.

Redfern said he couldn’t tell if any of the missing results were positive or if potentially positive people had been notified of their findings.

Test results that were returned often did not report basic demographic information. Almost 60% of the cases did not list the ethnicity of the individual and more than half did not list the race.

The missing demographics were not unique to Florida, said Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University, but it is “the most critical information we lacked.”

Once cases were identified, health officials were required to contact all COVID positive individuals within 48 hours of diagnosis, according to state guidelines.

However, the auditors found that the state never spoke to 23% of infected people. Those the state has contacted were often reached more than a week after testing positive, leaving them ample time to spread the virus to others.

However, given how quickly the pandemic has increased to more than 80,000 cases per week in the first seven months, the state’s contact tracing hasn’t been bad, Redfern said.

“We wouldn’t be able to hire enough people fast enough to meet that demand,” Redfern said. “It is unrealistic to think it would be sustainable.”

In January 2022, the state officially recommended county health departments to cease COVID-19 contact tracing, according to an email from Florida. General surgeon Joseph Ladapo.

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The reviewers also found more than 3,000 cases of COVID-19 deaths reported by doctors who were not on the state’s list of deaths.

Many missing documents were likely due to typos or clerical errors, the report concluded. However, the report found that state documents were missing or significantly delayed for nearly 40 percent of the missing deaths it examined.

Department of Health officials told auditors that death reports could take up to 60 days to appear in the state’s official tally – “a very long time to wait to see how deadly an emerging disease is,” he said. Blauer.

Redfern said the auditors misunderstood the death reporting requirements and that the delay in reporting has not changed substantially. the response to the state pandemic.

The Department of Health responded in an email to the Auditor General who agrees with the report’s recommendation to improve the accuracy of future data collection. The Department said it will investigate discrepancies and review data policies later this year.

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