An unredacted account: Near the end of life’s road, patients battled a vicious disease that swept them away

A man hospitalized with COVID-19 is given medicine. Credit: Getty Images

An unredacted document on medical examiner deaths from COVID-19 in Florida reveals the trauma, suffering and sadness of lives lost in the coronavirus pandemic.

In the extraordinary picture of loss, from early March to early May, many patients had already tackled extensive underlying conditions, from cancer and hypertension to diabetes and Parkinson’s, heart and renal diseases. But now they had to reckon with the vicious coronavirus.

Others came to hospitals thinking they were okay.

An Ecuador woman had arrived two weeks earlier to visit her daughter in Lee County. She was overweight but “reportedly took no medications regularly,” and had an “unremarkable social history.” But in the end, she succumbed to the deadly disease.

In matters of life and death, near the end of life’s road, some patients declined invasive measures and asked for “comfort care” only. Some held on for 12, 13, 15 and 17 days, the records show, though others died in just a few days.

The document came from a public record provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. State officials had been under pressure from news outlets and public records advocates to release details of the COVID-19 deaths, and Wednesday evening the FDLE released the document with medical examiner’s information.

The state hid large black sections of the report.

The Phoenix requested and received the document from the FDLE on Thursday. The Phoenix decided to convert the paper “PDF” to a more easily-read spreadsheet format in order to analyze the information.

The conversion revealed the redacted material, showing details of the 1,489 death cases.

The Florida Department of Health has a larger number — 1,600 death cases — for unknown reasons.

The FDLE-requested document is labeled as the Florida Medical Examiner’s Related Deaths, COVID-19 (coronavirus).

The document showed some of the patients’ symptoms, such as coughing and fevers, that have been common to the COVID-19 disease. But there were other symptoms as well, such as “altered mental status.”

Given that civil liberties organizations have become concerned about issues of race during the coronavirus pandemic, the Phoenix looked at the percent of black residents in Florida who died from the disease.

The data showed 289 cases of black residents who died in Florida, about 20 percent of the total group of deaths. That 20 percent is higher than the percentage of blacks in Florida, which is about 17 percent.

The document had some data that has already been made public, such as gender and deaths in the various counties in Florida.

In the medical examiner’s document, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach had the largest number of deaths. Those three counties have been in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

Miami-Dade showed 382 deaths; Broward, 252, and Palm Beach, 220.

But the deaths were widespread across Florida, with 45 of the state’s 67 counties with at least one COVID-19 death.

In addition to the three big southeast Florida counties, Manatee had 70 deaths; Orange and Sarasota, 50, Lee, 47 and Pinellas, 42.

The average age of deaths in the medical examiner’s document is about 76.

The age of deaths ranged from 26 — a male from Dade — to age 102 — two females from Pinellas and Manatee counties.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.