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Fernando Olvera adjusts a ventilator on a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center on December 2, 2020 in Houston. (Photo: Go Nakamura via Getty Images)

Fernando Olvera adjusts a ventilator on a patient in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at the United Memorial Medical Center on December 2, 2020 in Houston. (Photo: Go Nakamura via Getty Images)

DeSantis Accused of 'Statistical Sleight of Hand' to Conceal Surge in Covid Deaths

"Covid is a matter of life and death and people deserve to have information that is both accurate and understandable without having to decode it," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil

Earlier this month, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' Department of Health deliberately altered how it reported Covid-19 deaths, making it appear as though the public health crisis was waning even as the state's residents endured the most significant escalation in infections since the pandemic began, according to a report published Tuesday by the Miami Herald

New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that much of the United States is in the midst of a deadly coronavirus surge driven by the ultra-contagious Delta variant.

The Herald's analysis of data from Florida's Department of Health (DOH), however, found that the DeSantis administration responded to the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths by changing the way it reported deaths to the CDC, which generated a misleading reduction in mortality.

The newspaper explained the implications of the DOH's sudden and unacknowledged move:

On Monday, Florida death data would have shown an average of 262 daily deaths reported to the CDC over the previous week had the health department used its former reporting system, the Herald analysis showed. Instead, the Monday update from Florida showed just 46 "new deaths" per day over the previous seven days.

The dramatic difference is due to a small change in the fine print. Until three weeks ago, data collected by DOH and published on the CDC website counted deaths by the date they were recorded—a common method for producing daily stats used by most states. On August 10, Florida switched its methodology and, along with just a handful of other states, began to tally new deaths by the date the person died.

If you chart deaths by Florida's new method, based on date of death, it will generally appear—even during a spike like the present—that deaths are on a recent downslope. That's because it takes time for deaths to be evaluated and death certificates processed. When those deaths finally are tallied, they are assigned to the actual date of death—creating a spike where there once existed a downslope and moving the downslope forward in time.

Tracking mortality by date of death is essential for long-term studies of Covid-19, Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, told the Herald. But the DOH's decision to abruptly stop counting deaths by date reported—a method that Floridians had come to rely on to see daily patterns immediately—obscures current trends, endangering public health.

"When you have big surges in deaths, the deaths by date reported will always show an increase while deaths by date occurred will go down," Salemi said. "Someone could have died yesterday and we may not know about it for a week, or two weeks."

Covid-19 mortality trends show up faster when using death report dates than death dates. The delayed collection of official date of death data is what made it possible for Florida's health department to claim that new Covid-19 deaths were decreasing this month even though the number of deaths reported each day was increasing.

Shivani Patel, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Emory University, called the DOH's decision to share temporarily incomplete data that downplays Covid-19 mortality—a change unveiled on August 10 without warning or justification—"extremely problematic."

The covert switch, which came just four days after the DOH requested 300 ventilators from the Biden administration, makes it "look like we're doing better than we are," said Patel, and that could distort public perceptions of the pandemic for weeks.

With infections and hospitalizations also reaching record highs in Florida this month, Patel said that "what we're seeing is an active rise in cases where we can't keep up, an active rise in deaths that, because of using actual date of deaths, has been shifted back in time and we have no idea where we really are."

Tim Hartford, an economist and author of The Data Detective, warned against subtly manipulating presentations of data without adequate explanations, which he called a "statistical sleight of hand."

"The truthful-yet-deceptive framing of numbers is a serious problem," he said. "Covid is a matter of life and death and people deserve to have information that is both accurate and understandable without having to decode it."

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