White House Coronavirus Task Force reports not easily accessible in Florida

'Accurate, timely information is powerful,' infectious disease epidemiologist says
Posted at 6:48 PM, Oct 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-07 18:51:10-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For months, the White House Coronavirus Task Force has provided Florida weekly reports and recommendations to fight COVID-19.

But, unlike other states, Florida has not readily shared the info with the public.

For weeks, Liz Essley Whyte, with the Center for Public Integrity, has been trying to get copies of each task force state report. The nonprofit is using them to create an online database anyone can access.

“They're really important reports for us to get an idea of what the federal picture of the pandemic is looking like," Whyte said.

Each report has a trove of info on the spread of the virus, testing numbers and more. The federal task force also offers virus control recommendations to state and local leaders.

"What governors should be doing," Whyte said. "What different states should be doing, in terms of testing, whether bars should close. Things like that."

Whyte's effort to compile the reports hit a snag, however. As of Monday, 13 states hadn't gotten back to her, including Florida.

"I'm confident I was ignored by the governor’s office in Florida," said Whyte.

Liz Essley Whyte
Liz Essley Whyte, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, says she has been trying for weeks to get copies of every state's coronavirus task force report.

The White House has said the reports can be made public but is leaving it up to individual states. Oklahoma regularly publishes them online.

In the Sunshine State, the governor's office directed us to the public record system to obtain a copy. The trouble is that requests can often take weeks or months to fulfill.

Epidemiologists told us the delay is not ideal.

"With the COVID pandemic, if the information isn't timely, it’s essentially worthless," said Mary Jo Trepka, the epidemiology chair at Florida International University.

Trepka said while she applauds the state for releasing a lot about COVID-19 -- the federal reports could further help the public.

"Accurate, timely information is powerful," she said. "It helps people and helps also our policy leaders as we're making difficult decisions."

Mary Jo Trepka
Infectious disease epidemiologist Mary Jo Trepka says the reports could provide important information regarding the ongoing fight against coronavirus.

A few of Florida's reports have leaked online. Journalists who waited out long info requests have posted others.

The analysis shows the state isn't following some of the federal recommendations offered.

In August, the task force called for a statewide mask mandate in counties with 50 or more active cases. The governor instead allowed counties to decide on their own.

“The virus is changing daily," Whyte said. "People need information to make decisions."

Whyte said she would keep pushing for the information, believing it to be in the public's interest. Whether Florida officials agree and cutback red tape remains to be seen.

Here are some things you should keep in mind about Florida's COVID Task Force reports:

  • Florida is one of 13 not publishing them
  • State officials said a record request is needed for a copy, which can take weeks
  • Medical experts said the reports are essentially worthless at that point
  • We asked the governor’s office why it doesn’t simply post the reports online
  • Officials have yet to provide a response