Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office is denying a suggestion in a South Florida newspaper report that the state manipulated coronavirus data to present more favorable death numbers in the lead-up to November’s presidential election.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Tuesday reported that on Oct. 24 – ten days before the presidential election – Florida temporarily stopped including backlogged COVID-19 deaths in its daily tally of coronavirus fatalities. Two weeks after the election, the state again started consistently reporting the backlogged deaths, which are more than a month old.
By not including backlogged deaths for that roughly three-week period, an “astonishing pattern” emerged, resulting in a “mysterious gap” in COVID-19 deaths, according to the paper. The daily death numbers “publicized as Floridians turned out for early voting an Election Day were significantly lower than they otherwise would have been,” according to the Sun-Sentinel.
The story’s lead paragraph says the pattern “suggests the state manipulated a backlog of unrecorded fatalities, presenting more favorable death counts in the days leading up to the 2020 presidential election.”
DeSantis’ office pointed at a late-October change in the process of reviewing suspected COVID-19 deaths to explain the slowdown of reporting backlogged deaths for a few weeks in late October and early November.
“We absolutely deny that presidential politics played any role in the timing or substance of the COVID-19 review process,” Fred Piccolo Jr., a spokesman for DeSantis, told National Review.
In an email, Dana Banker, the Sun-Sentinel’s managing editor, said, “we reached out repeatedly to the state and got no response, and we clearly noted the possibility that the review triggered the pause. … We will continue to aggressively cover the state’s response to the pandemic, and we hope the state will begin responding to questions that are of significant public concern.”
The updated review process was announced on the heels of a mid-October investigation by the state House of Representatives that suggested the state’s coronavirus death tally may be inflated by as much as ten percent due to reporting errors by physicians and medical examiners.
On October 21, Florida’s Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees and the Florida Department of Health announced a more thorough review process for suspected coronavirus deaths.
In a press release, the Department of Health noted that the daily fatality data reported to the state from its 67 counties “consistently presents confusion,” because it not only includes the most recent deaths, but also backlogged deaths from months past. The state also was struggling with inconsistent data dumps that on some days would make it appear that there was a large spike in fatalities when actually there was no spike.
“Following the Florida House of Representative’s investigation into COVID-19 deaths, the Florida State Surgeon General and the Florida Department of Health initiated a re-examination and review process to give COVID-19 death reporting a thorough vetting and ensure we were getting the most accurate data regarding the health impacts of the virus,” Jason Mahon, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said in a prepared statement responding to the Sun-Sentinel’s report. “The accuracy of data is critical as Florida continues to provide unprecedented transparency on all aspects of the pandemic.”
Early voting was already well under way and millions of Floridians had already cast ballots by the time the state changed the review process and temporarily stopped including backlogged deaths in its daily tallies.
The Sun-Sentinel did note in its story that the updated COVID-19 death review process was announced three days before the “mysterious gap” in coronavirus deaths appeared. None of the “multiple state officials” reporters spoke to for the story would answer questions about the data, the newspaper reported.
“Thus the state’s intent in manipulating the data remains unclear,” the Sun-Sentinel reported. “It’s possible the Florida Department of Health paused reporting of backlogged deaths as part of its new policy on reviewing them. Whatever the intent, the change led to more favorable death trends as the election approached.”
With its 29 electoral votes, President Donald Trump was clearly desperate to win in Florida, which he ultimately did. During a mid-October rally in Ocala, Trump joked that if he lost Florida on Election Day, he would “find a way” to fire DeSantis.
DeSantis has long been a loyal ally of Trump’s, whose endorsement in 2018 gave the then-little-known congressman an edge in Florida’s Republican primary race for governor. In many ways, DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic mirrored Trump’s.
In a recent investigation, the Sun-Sentinel accused DeSantis and his administration of engaging in a “pattern of secrecy and spin” throughout the pandemic.
Among the accusations, DeSantis and his administration: refused to release details about the state’s first suspected coronavirus case and denied the virus was spreading in March when evidence indicated it was; withheld information about infections in schools, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes; and brushed aside scientists and doctors who advocated conventional approaches to fighting the virus, according to the newspaper.
Piccolo, the governor’s spokesman, told the Sun-Sentinel that DeSantis was not spinning anything, but rather was sticking to a fact-based message that would save the most lives.
“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic,” Piccolo told the paper. “Wash hands, maintain social distance, wear a mask, etc. But he’s also adapted to the data as it becomes available.”
“He acted quickly to save thousands of nursing home residents. He knew of drugs in the pipeline and was ready to act for Florida when he knew they were coming online. He’s been consistent even as the pandemic has become political.”