Florida officials have reportedly withheld medical examiners’ data on coronavirus deaths in the state for over a week, with the policy changing shortly after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the medical examiners were counting 10 percent more deaths than the state.
Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission, told the Tampa Bay Times that the state health department intervened and told him it planned to remove causes of death and case descriptions from mortality data.
Nelson told the newspaper the data is meaningless without that information, and the entirety of the list should be considered public information.
“This is no different than any other public record we deal with,” he said. “It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers have a right to know.”
Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the state health department, told the Times that the department “participated in conference calls” with the state Department of Law Enforcement, which provides administrative support to the Medical Examiners Commission, saying the discussions pertained to “privacy concerns for the individuals that passed away related to COVID-19.”
He said the state did not provide a formal legal opinion during the calls.
In March, the agency attempted to persuade the Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s office to restrict access to death records, according to the Times, citing correspondence between the two agencies. The county ultimately released the records, including the names of the dead.
Hillsborough County, meanwhile, refused to release records for weeks before eventually releasing a list on Tuesday of those identified as dying from the virus after questioning from the newspaper. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner, which previously provided a spreadsheet of coronavirus-related deaths, was directed by county attorneys last week to stop releasing it, according to the Times.
“I was actually taken aback when they called us,” Paul Petrino, the Palm Beach County office’s operations manager, told the newspaper, saying the office considers the release of the information essential to providing the public with information.
“I’d hate to see anything hinder that,” he told the Times. “Hopefully, it won’t.”
The Hill has reached out to the Florida Department of Health for comment.