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Florida officials were asked to avoid public statements on coronavirus before election: report

Florida state officials were asked to avoid public statements regarding the coronavirus in the lead up to the 2020 election, according to an investigative report by the Sun Sentinel

Three Florida health officials, who told the Sentinel they wished to remain unidentified, said they were told not to speak about COVID-19 until after the Nov. 3 election. Instead, they were instructed to talk about other health issues like the flu and hearing loss.

A senior health department official said, “It is all part of the top-down control of messaging from the governor’s office.”

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The order reportedly came from Alberto Moscoso, the communications director for the state health department, according to the outlet. It remains unclear who above Moscoso directed him to issue the order. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida's new voting law immediately hit with lawsuits The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Florida's restrictive voting bill signed into law Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee MORE (R) has been a vocal supporter and ally of President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE, and has made statements in the past downplaying the severity of the virus. 

The Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been widely criticized by opponents and Democrats, including President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE, who hammered Trump on the issue during presidential debates. 

Reporters for the Sentinel interviewed more than 50 people, including political leaders, state health department employees and state officials regarding COVID-19 and DeSantis's administration. The newspaper also reviewed more than 4,000 pages of documents.

The paper reported that the state denied the existence of community spread in the Sunshine State in the early stages of the pandemic after submitting information to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 8 that Florida was experiencing this kind of virus proliferation. 

The Sentinel also reported an underutilization of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, which was established in 2006 to address disease threats in the state. The governor has ignored the institute's 200 affiliated faculty and their expertise, according to the newspaper's investigation.

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“Unfortunately, they’re not drawing on the best science, they’re drawing on political needs,” Glenn Morris, director  of the institute said. “In many ways, it’s a tragedy.”

DeSantis since the beginning of the pandemic has been reluctant to close down parts of Florida's economy to contain the spread of COVID-19. And after imposing a lockdown earlier in the year, Florida was one of the first states to reopen, a decision that appeared to cause the Sunshine State to become a hot spot in the summer. 

Speaking to the Sentinel, DeSantis’s spokesman Fred Piccolo Jr. denied that the governor attempted to spin the facts around the pandemic.

“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Piccolo. “Wash hands, maintain social distance, wear a mask, etc. But he’s also adapted to the data as it becomes available.” 

Neither DeSantis nor Moscoso agreed to comment to the Sentinel. 

Florida this week became the third state in the U.S. to surpass 1 million coronavirus cases, following Texas and California. It has reported more than 18,000 deaths so far.

Like most of the country, the state has seen an uptick of cases in recent months.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, Florida currently has 4,286 hospitalized COVID patients, with more than 56,000 hospitalized in total during the pandemic.