Florida death certificate review raises questions about official number of COVID-19 deaths

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We had the opportunity to review death certificates for some of Florida’s recent COVID-19 deaths, and we can tell you definitively that Florida is counting deaths that were not directly caused by COVID-19.

Public health agencies have a goal of tracking the spread of a reportable disease, and for that reason, guidance was issued in March that any person who tested positive for COVID-19 should be counted as a COVID-19 death. However, the death count is now prominently featured in newscasts and used as a talking point to claim that some governments aren’t “doing enough” to stop the spread of COVID-19. COVID-19 metrics, including the number of reported deaths, are increasingly cited by governments as a reason to write public health recommendations into law.

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A change in CDC guidance published on March 24, 2020 (COVID-19 Alert No.2) encouraged doctors to include COVID-19 in PART 1 “for all decedents where the disease caused or is assumed to have caused or contributed to death.” This was reinforced on April 5 (COVID-19 2020 Interim Case Definition), when the CDC said any death with COVID-19 on the death certificate is counted as a COVID-19 death, even if it was just presumed and had no confirming laboratory or clinical validation. In other words, the CDC guidance explicitly does not distinguish between deaths from COVID-19 and deaths with COVID-19. 

This is contrary to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, which say to count only deaths “resulting from a clinically compatible illness, in a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to COVID disease (e.g. trauma). There should be no period of complete recovery from COVID-19 between illness and death. A death due to COVID-19 may not be attributed to another disease (e.g. cancer).” 

Author(s): JENNIFER CABRERA AND LEN CABRERA

Publication Date: 11 November 2020

Publication Site: Rational Ground

Florida Alters COVID-19 to Show Artificial Decline in Deaths

Link: https://www.governing.com/now/florida-alters-covid-19-to-show-artificial-decline-in-deaths

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The downloadable data sets on cases and deaths included the report date as well as the date a person died or got sick, allowing journalists and independent researchers to select the best metric for their purposes. The daily reports showed additional cases and deaths added from one day to the next.

In June, as case numbers dropped and vaccination rates continued to rise, the health department discontinued the dashboard and changed to a weekly report. The only near-daily data was submitted by the health department to the CDC and published on the CDC Trend Tracker website.

At first, the data on the CDC website was updated in a largely predictable manner, similar to the way that the DOH had reported daily changes throughout the pandemic. Then on Aug. 10, without warning or any explanation from the health department or the CDC, the data for nearly every day of the previous year changed. Neither agency immediately explained the changes.

Author(s): Sarah Blaskey, Ana Claudio Chacin and Devoun Cetoute, McClatchy Washington Bureau

Publication Date: 31 August 2021

Publication Site: Governing

Pandemic of unvaccinated continues to rage as states set new COVID records

Link: https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/08/pandemic-of-unvaccinated-continues-to-rage-as-states-set-new-covid-records/?mc_cid=7fce136b2d&mc_eid=983bcf5922

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At least five states have exceeded their previous peaks of seven-day averages for new daily cases—Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, Oregon, and Mississippi. Seven states have exceeded their most recent peaks in hospitalizations—Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, and Washington.

Florida in particular has been ablaze with COVID-19. The Sunshine State exceeded its previous record average of around 16,000 new daily cases, which was set in January. The state is now averaging just under 22,000, according to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As for daily hospitalization tallies, Florida is currently at its all-time record of around 15,000, exceeding its previous highest peak of around 12,000 last July.

Federal health officials noted last week that shipments to Florida containing COVID-19 treatments, including monoclonal antibodies, increased eightfold over the past month. On Tuesday, the Florida Hospital Association reported that it soon expects 75 percent of hospitals in the state to reach critical staffing shortages.

Author(s): Beth Mole

Publication Date: 17 August 2021

Publication Site: Ars Technica

5 States Where COVID-19 Hospitalizations Are Surging

Link: https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2021/07/29/5-states-where-covid-19-hospitalizations-are-surging/

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Some U.S. states look as if they might be heading into a severe new wave of COVID-19.

Federal government charts illustrating trends in new case counts and hospitalization rates in those states are starting to head straight up.

Hospitalization rates may be a better indicator of outbreak severity than new case counts, because ups and downs in the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 might reflect changes in how easy and cheap it is for people to get tested, rather than infection rates.

Hospitals, in contrast, are likely to admit people with COVID-19 only when those people are seriously ill.

Author(s): Allison Bell

Publication Date: 29 July 2021

Publication Site: Think Advisor

Rebekah Jones’s Lies about Florida COVID Data Keep Piling Up

Link: https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/06/rebekah-joness-lies-about-florida-covid-data-keep-piling-up/

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One of the most persistent falsehoods of the COVID pandemic has been the claim that Florida has been “hiding” data. This idea has been advanced primarily by Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health employee, who, having at first expressed only some modest political disagreements with the way in which Florida responded to COVID, has over time become a fountain of misinformation.

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To understand what is happening here, one needs to go back to the beginning. Over the past 15 months, Florida has published a truly remarkable amount of COVID-related data. At the heart of this trove has been a well-maintained list of literally every documented case of COVID — listed by county, age, and gender, and replete with information about whether the patient had recently traveled, had visited the ER, had been hospitalized, and had had any known contact with other Floridians. To my knowledge, Florida has been the only state in the union that has published this kind of data.

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To this day, you can download Florida’s case-line data and see 21 cases of COVID that, despite having been identified between March 2020 and December 2020, feature a December 2019 “Event Date.” To anyone who understands data, these results are clearly the product of the system having assigned a non-null default value when no data has been entered. To the Miami Herald, however, these results hinted at scandal. Even now, when its reporters know beyond any doubt that their initial instincts were wrong, the Herald continues to tell its readers that these entries serve as “evidence of community spread potentially months earlier than previously reported.” This is not true.

Author(s): Matt Shapiro

Publication Date: 8 June 2021

Publication Site: National Review

Rebekah Jones, the COVID Whistleblower Who Wasn’t

Link: https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/05/rebekah-jones-the-covid-whistleblower-who-wasnt/

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There is an extremely good reason that nobody in the Florida Department of Health has sided with Jones. It’s the same reason that there has been no devastating New York Times exposé about Florida’s “real” numbers. That reason? There is simply no story here. By all accounts, Rebekah Jones is a talented developer of GIS dashboards. But that’s all she is. She’s not a data scientist. She’s not an epidemiologist. She’s not a doctor. She didn’t “build” the “data system,” as she now claims, nor is she a “data manager.” Her role at the FDOH was to serve as one of the people who export other people’s work—from sets over which she had no control—and to present it nicely on the state’s dashboard. To understand just how far removed Jones really is from the actual data, consider that even now—even as she rakes in cash from the gullible to support her own independent dashboard—she is using precisely the same FDOH data used by everyone else in the world. Yes, you read that right: Jones’s “rebel” dashboard is hooked up directly to the same FDOH that she pretends daily is engaged in a conspiracy. As Jones herself confirmed on Twitter: “I use DOH’s data. If you access the data from both sources, you’ll see that it is identical.” She just displays them differently.

Or, to put it more bluntly, she displays them badly. When you get past all of the nonsense, what Jones is ultimately saying is that the State of Florida—and, by extension, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—has not processed its data in the same way that she would if she were in charge. But, frankly, why would it? Again, Jones isn’t an epidemiologist, and her objections, while compelling to the sort of low-information political obsessive she is so good at attracting, betray a considerable ignorance of the material issues. In order to increase the numbers in Florida’s case count, Jones counts positive antibody tests as cases. But that’s unsound, given that (a) those positives include people who have already had COVID-19 or who have had the vaccine, and (b) Jones is unable to avoid double-counting people who have taken both an antibody test and a COVID test that came back positive, because the state correctly refuses to publish the names of the people who have taken those tests. Likewise, Jones claims that Florida is hiding deaths because it does not in­clude nonresidents in its headline numbers. But Florida does report nonresident deaths; it just reports them separately, as every state does, and as the CDC’s guidelines demand. Jones’s most recent claim is that Florida’s “excess death” number is suspicious. But that, too, has been rigorously debunked by pretty much everyone who understands what “excess deaths” means in an epidemiological context—including by the CDC; by Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health; by Lauren Rossen, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics; and, most notably, by Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, who, having gone to the trouble of making a video explaining calmly why the talking point was false, was then bullied off Twitter by Jones and her followers.

Author(s): Charles C. W. Cooke

Publication Date: 13 May 2021

Publication Site: National Review

Editorial: Don’t further punish Florida state, local government retirees

Link: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/story/opinion/editorials/2021/04/25/editorial-dont-further-punish-florida-state-local-government-retirees/7331804002/

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A closer look at the FRS shows that there is no problem to be fixed, leaving SB 84 little more than a vehicle to divert millions that would appreciate over time into alternative — and riskier — investment funds managed by Wall Street firms friendly to Republican politicians.

The Senate’s consternation over Florida’s retirement program might surprise people who actually know something about it. The state’s pension program still has a AAA credit rating and a very manageable liability relative to the size of Florida’s economy. Its funded ratio sits among the nation’s best. Its sizeable returns on investment pay the bulk of retirement benefits.

“I would say overall that we’re in a reasonably good place, and we’re heading in the right direction,” said Ash Williams, executive director and chief investment officer for the State Board of Administration, the body responsible for managing the state’s defined contribution program.

Author(s): Editorial board

Publication Date: 25 April 2021

Publication Site: Palm Beach Post

The COVID-19 Disaster That Did Not Happen in Texas

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Most businesses in Texas had been allowed to operate at 75 percent of capacity since mid-October, when Abbott also allowed bars to reopen. It was implausible that removing the cap would have much of an impact on virus transmission, even in businesses that were frequently hitting the 75 percent limit.

While Abbott said Texans would no longer be legally required to cover their faces in public, he urged them to keep doing so, and many businesses continued to require masks. At the stores I visit in Dallas, there has been no noticeable change in policy or in customer compliance.

Conversely, face mask mandates and occupancy limits did not prevent COVID-19 surges in states such as Michigan, where the seven-day average of newly confirmed infections has risen more than fivefold since March 1; Maine, which has seen a nearly threefold increase; and Minnesota, where that number has more than doubled. Cases also rose during that period, although less dramatically, in other states with relatively strict COVID-19 rules, including DelawareMarylandMassachusettsNew JerseyPennsylvania, and Washington.

Florida, a state often criticized as lax, also has seen a significant increase in daily new cases: 34 percent since mid-March. But Florida, despite its relatively old population, still has a per capita COVID-19 death rate only a bit higher than California’s, even though the latter state’s restrictions have been much more sweeping and prolonged.

Author(s): Jacob Sullum

Publication Date: 21 April 2021

Publication Site: Reason

Florida Senate OKs not offering state pension to many new workers, including teachers

Link: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article250520864.html

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Amid fierce opposition from Democrats, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved a proposal that would block future teachers and other government workers from enrolling in the state’s traditional pension plan.

The Senate voted 24-16 to back the change, which would take effect with employees hired as of July 1, 2022. Those workers would be required to enroll in a 401(k)-style plan — though what are known as “special risk” employees, such as law-enforcement officers, correctional officers and firefighters, would still be able to take part in the traditional pension system.

Lawmakers have debated such a move for years, as private employers have largely moved away from traditional pensions and shifted to 401(k) retirement plans. Currently, government employees can decide whether to enroll in the state pension plan or a 401(k)-style plan.

Author(s): JIM SAUNDERS NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

Publication Date: 8 April 2021

Publication Site: Miami Herald

Opponents vow to intensify campaign against proposed Florida pension revamp

Link: https://www.thecentersquare.com/florida/opponents-vow-to-intensify-campaign-against-proposed-florida-pension-revamp/article_a37e3158-93d8-11eb-a8d7-7771f4ad8a68.html

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SB 84’s legislative analysis estimates the proposed change would save the state $8.3 million in the first year, increasing to $109.7 million annually after 30 years.

As of June 30, FRS held $164.3 billion in assets against $200.3 billion in liabilities, leaving $36 billion in unfunded liabilities, which means the FRS could cover 82 percent of its obligations if every member retired today.

Templin said an 80-percent threshold is the “gold standard” in pension viability and the FRS is “in very good shape.”

Which makes it attractive for manipulation, said AFSCME Florida Retiree Executive Board member Maxie Hicks.

Author(s): John Haughey

Publication Date: 2 April 2021

Publication Site: The Center Square

Yahoo Story on Florida COVID Study Misrepresented Key Finding, Study’s Author Says

Link: https://www.nationalreview.com/news/yahoo-story-on-florida-covid-study-misrepresented-key-finding-studys-author-says/

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But Moosa Tatar, the lead author of the study featured by Yahoo, said the story’s framing of his analysis was incorrect, and he does not yet know how many of the excess deaths are attributable to COVID.

“The impact of COVID-19 on mortality is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest. But we need further research to determine specific reasons for this,” he told National Review. “These deaths may have been directly or indirectly associated with COVID-19.”

Nazaryan went on to imply that Governor Ron DeSantis could be pressuring the state’s medical examiners, who have “some discretion,” to deliberately undercount COVID deaths. “In Florida, the state’s 25 district medical examiners are directly appointed by the governor,” he noted.

Author(s): Tobias Hoonhout

Publication Date: 30 March 2021

Publication Site: National Review

Florida COVID numbers face new scrutiny

Link: https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/florida-covid-numbers-face-new-scrutiny-090058319.html

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The impact of the pandemic in Florida “is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest,” the researchers wrote. They came to that conclusion by comparing the number of estimated deaths for a six-month period in 2020, from March to September, to the actual number of deaths that occurred, a figure known as “excess deaths” because they exceed the estimate.

There were 400,000 excess deaths across the United States in 2020, a spike closely correlated to the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of testing early in the pandemic may also have undercounted COVID-19 deaths, explains Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health who has also studied the coronavirus and excess deaths.

The issue was further complicated because each state has its own death-counting methodology. “Some states classify a death as due to COVID if a positive molecular test was obtained, while other states allow the death to be classified as due to COVID if there is a suspicion that it was caused by COVID (even without a molecular test),” Weinberger wrote in an email to Yahoo News.

Author(s): Alexander Nazaryan

Publication Date: 30 March 2021

Publication Site: Yahoo News