Florida’s COVID-19 death toll may be skewed; FL Surgeon General to conduct a fatality review

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees at the podium next to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Dr. Shamarial Roberson in March 2020. Nowadays, Rivkees is rarely seen in news conferences with the governor. Photo: Facebook video

Back in March, the Florida Phoenix wrote about an unusual situation related to COVID-19 deaths: The Florida Department of Health was taking a long time to “count” a death.

In some cases, deaths had not been reported to the public for several days and even up to two weeks, the data showed.

In a Pasco death case, for example, the department posted March 14 as the date the death was counted. The Pasco man was 67. The death was made public in a health department report on Saturday, March 28, two weeks after the death was “counted.”

In a Pinellas death case — a 52-year-old male — the department posted the death date as March 18. The death was made public 10 days later, on Saturday, March 28. In a Broward case — a 74-year-old male — the department posted the death on March 15. It was made public March 27, 12 days after the death was counted.

Those cases and others could be related to travel situations, or other circumstances.

But the length of time between counting a death and the information made to the public could potentially skew the picture as Florida tries to provide an accurate report of deaths.

And now the picture has become far worse, with Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees announcing Wednesday that the state “conduct a more thorough review of all fatalities reported to the state.”

“Fatality data reported to the state consistently presents confusion and warrants a more rigorous review,” according to a news release about the issue.

“Of the 95 fatalities reported to the state yesterday (Oct. 20), 16 had more than a two-month separation between the time the individuals tested positive and passed away, and 11 of the deaths occurred more than a month ago.”

Rivkees said in the release: “During a pandemic, the public must be able to rely on accurate public health data to make informed decisions. To ensure the accuracy of COVID-19 related deaths, the Department will be performing additional reviews of all deaths. Timely and accurate data remains a top priority of the Department of Health.”

The state health department also reported that five deaths had at least three months between the time those people were tested positive and died.

The agency reported deaths on Oct. 20, 2020 that included a female, age 58, in Miami-Dade County who died Oct. 6, though the state was aware that the woman had been tested positive back on June 23.

In a similar case, the department reported an Oct. 20 death of a female, age 87, of Palm Beach, who actually died Oct. 1. The department was aware that the woman had been tested positive on June 25.

Of the 95 cases, 18 counties had deaths related to when people tested positive and died, though the agency reported the death on Oct. 20.

The most cases were from Palm Beach County, with 50 of the deaths; 9 from Miami-Dade; 8 from Sarasota, and 5 in Hernando.

Overall, the state health department on Wednesday evening reported 16,210 death of Florida residents.

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.