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State Officials Block Florida Medical Examiners From Releasing Data On Coronavirus Deaths

The decision to not make this list available to the media and to members of the public came after conversations between the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Health.
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The decision to not make this list available to the media and to members of the public came after conversations between the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Health.

State officials are blocking Florida medical examiners from releasing their own list of coronavirus deaths, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

An investigation by the Times previously reported the medical examiners' death count was at one point 10 percent higher than the official number released by the state.

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Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini spoke with Times reporter Kathleen McGrory, who along with Rebecca Woolington has been covering the story

McGrory first explains how the medical examiners' data differs from the state health department's, and how officials are now preventing the public from accessing that information. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Walk me through the timeline when you first noticed some of those differences between deaths reported by the Medical Examiners Commission and the state data, up until now, when that medical examiners’ information has been missing for more than a week.

We weren't even aware that the medical examiners were keeping count of coronavirus deaths in Florida until a few weeks ago actually. We were just doing some run-of-the-mill reporting, and in the course of doing that reporting we learned: 1. Under Florida law, the medical examiners have the responsibility of certifying all of the COVID-19 deaths in the state. 2. All the local medical examiners were feeding what they were seeing on the ground into a list that was being maintained at the state level.

The data that the commission was providing us didn't include the names of the deceased, but it did include the county where they died, the person's age, their race, their gender. And it included a small narrative on each case that mentioned if the person had traveled anywhere, any type of medical history that might have been relevant, and also where the person was treated.   

It was really interesting to look at the list because the statewide list of deaths being compiled by the medical examiners was different from the numbers that the state was providing through the Florida Department of Health, the official count. So we asked the medical examiners how they were keeping count. They were doing it based on the county where the person died. Their list was also including seasonal residents, like snowbirds or visitors, pretty much anybody who died in the state of Florida from COVID-19 was being captured on this medical examiners list.

But the state has been doing it in a in a different way. The state has only been including Florida residents in its count of COVID-19 deaths. So that was one of the reasons that there was a potential difference in the overall count and also in the counts by each county. We also learned that on the department of health side, that they believe they are capturing the deaths with more of a lag than the medical examiners are.

When we did our original story a couple weeks ago and we were comparing the two lists, the thing that immediately jumped out was that the medical examiners’ overall count of death was ten percent higher than the official count. That was something that certainly raised questions in our mind.

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We spoke to a number of public health experts who said that it is absolutely pivotal that we have accurate death data in the state of Florida to help drive public policy decisions, and that if we were only looking at Florida residents, then that was going to potentially leave out an important segment of the Florida population and an important segment of Florida's vulnerable population.

So we published that story a couple weeks ago, and then I attempted to reach back out to the Medical Examiners Commission and get an updated copy of the list, and that's the point when I was told that the list was no longer being made available to the public.

What have you discovered in your attempts to learn why?

I reached out to the Florida Department of Law enforcement, which is the state agency that provides administrative support to the Medical Examiners Commission.

They said that they were planning to release the list, that they would make this list available to the public, but that they needed to really review it and potentially redact it. And so I asked them on what grounds they were planning to make redactions, I didn't hear back on that end, but I can tell you that it's been about 10 days since we made the request for this list, remember, it's a list that reporters had previously been getting in real time. And they've not yet given it to us.

In speaking with the chairman of the Medical Examiners Commission (Dr. Stephen Nelson), I learned that the decision to not make this list available to the media and to members of the public came after conversations between the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Health. We know that in at least one case, the state Department of Health reached out to Miami-Dade County and asked the county officials not to allow its medical examiner to make its death data available. So we've seen this kind of interference before.

I asked (the health department) very directly if the Department of Health had influenced the decision that was made by folks at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to not release medical examiners’ data. They said that there had been conversations between the two agencies, but that there wasn’t any formal legal opinion given, but we do know that the agencies had been talking.

From what I read of your conversation with the Medical Examiners Commission chair, he did not seem happy about this.

Yeah, the chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission believes that this list is a public record. He told me that medical examiners across Florida have been counting the dead in every state emergency since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And that the lists have always been a public record. He thoroughly believes it's public and he is puzzled by this move.

We also spoke to some public records experts in the state of Florida, and they also believe that this should be a public record.

What are some concerns with finding out that the state is trying to control this kind of information that's getting out there? Has the state issued any reasoning as to why they might want to restrict some of that?

In this specific case, they have not provided me with the specific statutory exemption that they would be following if they were to redact or withhold some of this information, you know, if and when they ultimately make this record available to us. And so we don't quite know at the moment, but it's been interesting to watch Florida's response to all of this.

On one hand, you can say that the state has been very transparent. The state health department has a COVID-19 dashboard that has information on the number of infections, hospitalizations, deaths, etc. It's rich with data and has even been cited as a national model. But in many other ways the state has not been transparent.

For a while, the state was releasing the overall number of cases in nursing homes but not telling us which nursing homes had the cases and it took a coalition of newspapers, led by the Miami Herald, and the Tampa Bay Times was a part of it, threatening to sue for the state to release that information.

So we've seen the state be transparent on some things, we've seen the state not be transparent on others, and all the public health experts that I am talking to agree that information is power, transparency in times of public crisis is of utmost importance and the public needs as much information as possible in this moment.

You’ve also noticed differences in reporting at the local level.

Yeah so the thing that was kind of difficult about this is when we were trying to pull down this data, we were kind of looking at it on two fronts. We were trying to pull it down from the state Medical Examiners Commission, the central organization based in Tallahassee. But we were also trying to acquire some of this data from the local medical examiners because remember, that they are the ones who are doing this work and they are feeding it up. So we made a request at the state level and we made a series of requests at the local level.

There were many local medical examiners who were willing to give us this information, in some cases with the names of the deceased because they believed it was a public record, regardless of what was happening at the state level. Pinellas is making it available, Broward, Miami-Dade, etc.

Hillsborough for a few weeks was not. They had said that they believed it was not a public record. But on Tuesday, they changed their minds. They said after having some talks with attorneys and the state Medical Examiners Commission, their interpretation of the law is that it is indeed a public record. So they are making that available.

But not all of the local medical examiners are right now. Palm Beach County, which previously had been making this information available to reporters and members of the public, is not at the moment. Their county attorney is reviewing the law and is reviewing what's being done in other places, and plans to make a decision soon about whether or not Palm Beach should resume making that data available. But for now they're pausing.

How does that patchwork approach throughout the state – you have some counties releasing it, some not – make it challenging for reporters, health experts and other people trying to understand where we're at with this pandemic?

You're absolutely right. It is challenging if you have to take a real patchwork approach to try to pull down all of that information. And quite frankly, that was the point of the Medical Examiners Commission in Tallahassee compiling that list and making it available to folks in real time. They were doing that work because they recognize the importance of having that available without the extra step of having to query 20-some-odd medical examiners and get the information from them.

So hopefully, the Department of Law Enforcement will provide that record. And hopefully it won't be too terribly redacted and Floridians will be able to look at it and really have a better understanding of what's going on with the epidemic in real time.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.