In recent weeks, Florida has seen a wave of misinformation regarding COVID-19 and how the state fights the pandemic and coronavirus deaths are counted coming from liberal media, who had previously also promoted conspiracy theories and misinformation surrounding COVID-19 monoclonal antibody treatment.
“Florida changed its COVID-19 data, creating an ‘artificial decline’ in recent deaths,” reads a headline in the Miami Herald newspaper, in an approach that invites the public to believe that the state governed by Ron DeSantis is manipulating death figures to improve its coronavirus mortality statistics.
Although not apparent in the headline, the variation in how deaths are counted is no trick, in fact, it is the same way deaths are counted as in 11 other states and also in New York City: through the dates of deaths themselves.
This headline was amplified by political opponents of Governor DeSantis and by various media outlets across the country. “Florida Changed How It Counts COVID-19 Deaths, Creating an ‘Artificial Decline,'” said the Daily Beast. “Florida reported ‘artificial decline’ in COVID-19 deaths as cases were surging,” reported The Hill. “Fox News (or some outlet no one has ever heard of) story trying to disparage this great reporting coming in 3…2…1…” Politico’s Matt Dixon expounded on Twitter, as if debunking a disinformative article was wrong.
The Herald headline spread quickly among the media, but it proliferated even faster among Democratic politicians critical of DeSantis. Nikki Fried, a Democrat and likely one of DeSantis’ gubernatorial challengers, and Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, spread the Herald article. Also, the partisan organization Occupy Democrats weighed in on Twitter about the story in question.
“BREAKING: An investigation by the Miami Herald finds that Governor DeSantis’ Health Department has been misreporting COVID deaths by quietly using smoke and mirrors to make the current surge in deaths look like a decrease in deaths. RT IF YOU THINK THAT DEATHSANTIS MUST RESIGN!” they wrote in a tweet that has, so far, over 2500 retweets and almost 4000 likes.
Despite the viralization, the reality is that the change in the way COVID-19 deaths are counted in Florida is far from a news story.
The Florida Department of Health responds
Faced with the viralization of the Miami Herald article, it was the Florida Department of Health itself that took it upon itself to deny the report with information in the public domain. And their arguments are solid.
“Today, the Miami Herald published an article riddled with contradictions and false claims – specifically in regards to their page headline: ‘Florida changed its COVID-19 data, creating an ‘artificial decline’ in recent deaths,'” reads the Florida Department of Health’s page.
Likewise, the department said, “The Miami Herald also published a misleading front page headlinearticle on Friday, August 27, stating: ‘It is the largest single-day increase to the death total in the state’s COVID pandemic history…’ The jump in the number of reported cases and deaths is due to the newest way deaths and cases are counted. The CDC implemented the change earlier this month, causing occasional one-day aberrations like the 901 additional deaths on Thursday and 726 more deaths reported Monday.”
This shows a contradiction from the Miami Herald, as the media claimed that the new ways of counting deaths from the virus caused a “jump” in deaths, but, days later, they also say that it caused an “artificial decline”. 2. Both news items were, in reality, misrepresentations that generate disinformation.
On the specific case of the “artificial decline,” the department said the headline “is completely incorrect and misleads the public. Florida reports COVID-19 deaths by date of death for precision, accuracy, and transparency in public communications.” The information provided by the department is supported by epidemiologist Dr. Jason Salemi, who argues that counting COVID-19 deaths by date of death is the best way to record deaths.
“You know exactly when people died, you know how to construct the curve and exactly when we were experiencing surges in terms of deaths,” Salemi told the Miami Herald.
What Salemi did caution is that “Florida’s new data structure is less useful for understanding the pandemic in real time, he warned,” but that’s not in line with what the newspaper posits.
“Updating already provisional data does not create an ‘artificial decline,’ nor does it distort the data. These are the deaths as they occurred by date. The fact that these data are provisional is made clear by both DOH reports and the data displayed by the CDC. This ensures that the most accurate data are provided to the public. As the Miami Herald article reported, many other states report COVID-19 deaths the same way Florida does,” the Florida Department of Health noted.
The Miami Herald debunks the Miami Herald
Incredibly, the Miami Herald itself published an article on August 14 explaining the new death-counting procedure applied in Florida, at which time, it did not treat the variation as a way to alter public records.
“The CDC has changed the way it reports cases and deaths in Florida. It now publishes cases and deaths based on the date of occurrence — instead of the date that it was reported to the agency. The reason is due to the Florida Department of Health submitting a complete renewed set of case data to the CDC everyday, including retrospective COVID-19 cases, Weesam Khoury, the Florida DOH communications director, told the Miami Herald,” the article read.
“This will ensure that ongoing epidemiologic analyses provide the most up-to-date data to the public,” Khoury told the Herald.
So, The Florida DOH had already contacted the Herald weeks ago to explain the new ways of counting deaths, the newspaper even reported it, but now they used a quote from a social epidemiologist to say there was statistical manipulation.
Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist from Georgia, who according to her biography is mostly focused on studying diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as sociology and economics, was the one who told the Herald that the new way of counting deaths is “extremely problematic” and represents an “artificial decline.”
The Herald story, omitting key information in its headline that would detract from the story’s relevance, such as that the new count is the best way to count deaths according to expert epidemiologists, that such counting had been previously warned and is used by at least 11 U.S. states. Along the way, these stories fabricate a bleak picture in their disinformative zeal.