When the Florida Department of Health moved its COVID-19 reports from daily to weekly earlier this month, some of the data also disappeared from public view — including the number of people who have died of the virus in each county, detailed vaccination information and a list of long-term care facilities with coronavirus infections and deaths.
Though some of the missing information can be found on federal websites, it is considerably more difficult to download and decipher. And details on COVID in the state’s 3,000-plus assisted living centers, independent-living facilities and group homes have seemingly vanished altogether.
“They said they were going to reduce it to weekly reporting, but they didn’t even do that. They just pulled the plug,” said Brian Lee, executive director of the national advocacy organization Families For Better Care. “When we know that long-term care facilities have been Ground Zero for the virus, this is stick-your-head-in-the-sand policy.”
The Florida Department of Health did not respond to questions about why the new weekly reports lack the information. Instead, the department sent an email noting that the weekly data includes positivity and vaccination rates, case numbers, statewide vaccine numbers by age group and total deaths from COVID-19.
“Infections and disease control is a core function of the Florida Department of Health” the email concluded. “The department will continue to adapt and respond to COVID-19 to protect public health.”
But some national health authorities contend the rollback of COVID data is a mistake, despite the continuing drop in infections.
“State data dashboards have been an integral component of the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins, in a plea to continue the daily reports. “Due in large part to these efforts, test positivity rates are now dramatically decreasing across the country. … Now that we are finally winning the battle against COVID-19, we cannot stop fighting. This virus is not going away.”
According to John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center, while other states are also lessening the frequency of their reports, most still publish at least four to five times a week. Florida is the only state to make its report weekly.
And in addition to the missing information on long-term care facilities and COVID deaths in each county, Florida’s weekly reports no longer show the number of COVID cases and deaths in group homes or correctional facilities, hospitalizations due to COVID-19, the number of cases by city and a detailed list of cases with each person’s age, gender, location and date of testing. (Names are always withheld under privacy laws.)
Epidemiologist Jason Salemi, an associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, said the state’s daily COVID reports were once among the most thorough in the nation.
“By the middle to the end of the pandemic, they were providing more granular information than just about any state,” said Salemi, who produces his own Florida COVID-19 Dashboard using state and federal data. “I can only speculate on this… but I do know that it has been an immense amount of work for these publicly available reports.”
Salemi, highly skilled in data analysis, said he finds most of what he used to get from the state’s report elsewhere. But Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Florida International University, said the missing data will make it harder for residents and local leaders to understand what’s happening.
“It’s no longer possible to tell at the local level what percentage of people have completed their vaccination series,” she said. “That’s one thing that’s missing. Another thing is the age group, gender, race and ethnicity [within each county] being vaccinated. And that means that you don’t have as much information to decide what you should be doing to improve vaccination.”
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Previously, for instance, state data revealed vaccination rates were lagging in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities — which led to educational campaigns and vaccine clinics targeting those demographic groups. The new weekly reports only have such information on a statewide level.
“I think it’s going to be especially problematic in the fall, when kids go back to school and parents want to know, like, how many kids are vaccinated in my community?” Trepka said.
But the most vulnerable group to COVID infections continues to be people 65 and older, especially those with chronic health conditions in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Lee noted. Without public scrutiny of what’s happening inside — where more than half of employees remain unvaccinated — he said residents could be put at risk.
“At the end of the day, the state’s data was good for the fact that it was more timely,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, I think this move to weekly data is an indication that politicians here want to change the conversation on COVID, and the best way to do that is to talk about it as little as possible.”