Florida reported 'artificial decline' in COVID-19 deaths as cases were surging

Florida’s Department of Health changed the way COVID-19 deaths are counted in the state as the delta variant was spreading, which led to an “artificial decline” in deaths. 

The Miami Herald reported Monday that the state’s shift in how it reported deaths gave the appearance that the pandemic was declining, based on analysis of Florida data conducted by the newspaper along with el Nuevo Herald.

Until three weeks ago, according to the Herald, data collected by Florida and then posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tallied deaths by the date they were recorded, which is reportedly common practice for showing daily statistics in many states.

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On Aug. 10, however, the state changed its methodology and started counting daily new deaths by the date the person died instead of the day the death was registered. A handful of other states have also reportedly switched to such a process.

When recording COVID-19 deaths with the new method, which focuses on date of death, the numbers will generally appear to be on a recent downward slope, even during the current surge, the Herald reported, because it takes a certain amount of time to evaluate deaths and process death certificates.

The Herald laid out an example of the discrepancy between the two methods: the state’s death data would have exhibited an average of 262 deaths reported to the CDC in the previous week if the health department used the original reporting system, according to the newspaper's analysis.

Instead, however, the new reporting system only tracked 46 new daily deaths over the last seven days.

Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist and assist professor at Emory University, told the Herald that the shift was “extremely problematic,” and created an “artificial decline” in recent deaths without context.

She said it was especially troublesome because the shift came amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, giving off the appearance that “we are doing better than we are.”

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The change in methodology, according to the Herald, was instituted one day after the Florida Department of Health Twitter account criticized the CDC’s COVID-19 tracker, claiming that its numbers were “incorrect.”

Weesam Khoury, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, told the Herald it worked with the CDC this week to address “data discrepancies that have occurred.”

“As a result of data discrepancies that have occurred, this week, [Florida Department of Health] worked quickly and efficiently with CDC to ensure accurate display of data on their website the same day,” Khoury said.

“To proactively ensure accurate data is consistently displayed, the Department will begin daily submission of a complete renewed set of case data to CDC, including retrospective COVID-19 cases,” she added.

The news comes amid increased scrutiny on Florida and its governor, Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe CDC's Title 42 order fuels racism and undermines public health Chicago sues police union over refusal to comply with vaccine mandate Crist says as Florida governor he would legalize marijuana, expunge criminal records MORE (R), for their handling of the pandemic.

Florida became the epicenter of the virus earlier this month, with hospitalizations skyrocketing to levels not observed at previous points in the pandemic.

The Hill reached out to the Florida Department of Health for comment.