The Florida Department of Health reportedly changed its method of reporting COVID-19 deaths as the delta variant spread through the state, creating an “artificial decline” in the death rate, according to The Miami Herald.
The Herald and el Nuevo Herald analyzed the data released by Florida and found that until three weeks ago, the data that was collected by the state and released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted deaths by the date on which the death was recorded, which is the common practice for many states when reporting daily statistics. However, the state altered its methodology starting on August 10, now counting the deaths by the date on which the person died, rather than the day that death was registered, a process that has been used more recently by a few states.
The newspaper notes that “if you chart deaths by Florida’s new method, based on date of death, it will generally appear — even during a spike like the present — that deaths are on a recent downslope. That’s because it takes time for deaths to be evaluated and death certificates processed. When those deaths finally are tallied, they are assigned to the actual data of death — creating a spike where there once existed a downslope and moving the downslope forward in time.”
The Herald found that if Florida has used the old methodology, it would have reported 262 average daily deaths in the previous week, instead of the 46 “new deaths” per day that the state reported according to the more recent methodology.
Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist with Emory University, described this decision as “extremely problematic,” and noted that it came without any warning or explanation despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Patel added that the data illustrates an “artificial decline” in the number of deaths that was devoid of context or explanation, saying that “it would look like we are doing better than we are.”
She went on to say, “it shouldn’t be left to the public, to scientists, national policy makers or the media to guess as to what these numbers are. We know from the beginning that dates matter and that they tell us different things.”
University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi told the Herald that reporting based on date of death is more useful for long-term studies, saying that “deaths by date of death curve is the most accurate you can get. You know exactly when people died, you know how to construct the curve and exactly when we were experiencing surges in terms of deaths.”
A spokesperson for the Florida Health Department, which tweeted earlier this month that the figures released by the CDC were incorrect, told the Herald in a statement: “As a result of data discrepancies that have occurred, this week, FDOH worked quickly and efficiently with CDC to ensure accurate display of data on their website the same day. 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.”
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