Case data that was incomplete or inaccurate. COVID deaths that were reported late or not at all and contact tracing that was, simply, never done. These are among some of the findings documented by Florida’s Auditor General in a new report critical of how the state tracked and reported COVID-19 and how its failures could have impacted the state’s ability to control the virus’ spread.
The recently published watchdog report is the result of the office’s review of COVID case information collected and reported between March and October 2020. The report highlights errors and inaccuracies in how the state’s top health and emergency management departments tracked COVID cases throughout the state.
Among highlights from the report:
- The state failed to include more than 3,000 COVID-related deaths on its death count list
- Results from thousands of COVID tests were never returned by state-run testing sites
- Of those test results returned, many lacked critical and basic patient information including race, age and gender of the patient
- Contact tracing efforts were never done or even attempted on more than 20% of people who tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Auditory General’s findings.
While the specific failures highlighted in the report aren’t new, it is the first time the state’s watchdog is weighing in on the state’s tracking of the virus. The state’s handling of the pandemic and its lack of transparency with the public about case and death counts has frequently been scrutinized and questioned by the media and Democratic lawmakers.
But University of South Florida Epidemiologist Jason Salemi adds context to the findings, explaining how inaccuracies and undercounting of cases in Florida aren’t unique to the Sunshine State.
“This is not just a Florida problem,” he said. Salemi has spent more than two years analyzing the state’s COVID data. He frequently posts his findings on Twitter offering the public both understanding and context to the numbers.
“Other states in the United States and other countries around the world, they’ve all struggled with this,” Salemi said. “They were all trying to respond to a growing pandemic and they were trying to do so with data systems that were not primed to be able to respond in an adequate way. I think everybody has had failures, and everybody has had successes,” he said.
In its response to the Auditor General’s findings, leaders at Florida’s Department of Health (FDOH) disputed some of its conclusions. In response to the undercounting of COVID-19 deaths, FDOH leaders explained how the Auditor’s conclusions were based on a flawed system and misunderstanding of how death counts are classified by the state’s COVID-10 surveillance systems versus vital statistics. FDOH also pointed blame at laboratories for testing inaccuracies, delays in results, and missing or erroneous patient information.
FDOH has made a number of changes to its data tracking methods and is still making adjustments to improve how it tracks disease across the state. Many of those changes were adopted and implemented as the state was still fighting to get control of COVID-19.
“A lot of things we could have done better, but we need to give credit where credit is due,” he said. “I’m hoping that we're now implementing policies in place where we just do everything that much better in the future. We owe it to people because we should have learned a lot from our mistakes during this pandemic,” he said.