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Report: State Officials Asked Medical Examiners to Withhold Coronavirus Death Figures

Florida’s Department of Health tried to keep a tally of coronavirus deaths that is tracked by Florida’s 22 medical examiners from being released to the public, according to The Tampa Bay Times.

The article states the list from the medical examiners had previously been released in real time. However, when the newspaper reported that the tally was 10 percent higher than the health department’s count, state officials directed that the list be reviewed and possibly redacted. The pause in reporting has been occurring for 10 days, according to the newspaper.

In addition, the report comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced Phase One of “SAFE. SMART. STEP-BY-STEP. Plan for Re-opening Florida,” which excludes Southeast Florida due to the high concentration of cases and deaths in this part of the state.

“For Florida, going from where we are now to phase 1 is not a very big leap,” DeSantis said while announcing the plan on Wednesday. “I think we will be able to be a small step for us. We will approach it in a very measured, thoughtful, and data-driven way.” Phase One begins on May 4.

Meanwhile, Florida currently has more than 33,000 coronavirus cases and more than 1,200 deaths from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Names of the deceased are not included on the list, although there is demographic information, probable cause of death, and a case summary.

Dr. Stephen Nelson, who serves as chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission, the group that released the list, says that state officials told him they plan to remove cause of death and case descriptions from death counts. He believes such a move would make the information “meaningless.”

“This is no different than any other public record we deal with,” Nelson said to The Times. “It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers have a right to know.”

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health told The Times that the agency held conference calls with the state’s Department of Law Enforcement, which provides administrative support to the Medical Examiners Commission, about privacy concerns for those who have died from COVID-19.

The spokesperson explains that the health department did not provide a legal opinion.

On the other hand, The Times adds that an employee for one of the state health department’s county offices claims the difference in figures between the two lists is a result of the department excluding from its list “some snowbirds and other seasonal residents, along with visitors who died in Florida.” The newspaper reports that the medical examiner counts all people who died in the state.

The difference in figures has been a concern for Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation, which recently sent a collective letter to DeSantis, asking for a “detailed explanation of the public health justification” for the difference in the tracking methods.

They also asked the governor to work with the health department and the medical examiners around the state to ensure that coronavirus cases are identified and reported accurately.