As Florida hands over new COVID data, what impact could it have?
On June 4, 2021, Florida stopped delivering daily information on COVID-19 testing, infections and deaths. At the time, the spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis said COVID cases had dropped significantly and Florida was “returning to normal,” noting the availability of vaccines.
Instead of daily reports, it was going to release the data each week. Today, the information comes out every two weeks.
At the time the state stopped its daily update, nearly 37,000 Floridians had died from COVID-19.
This week, the state agreed to hand over the statistics it originally said it did not have. It amounts to 25 gigabytes of data — more than two years of infection rates, vaccinations and deaths.
The state settled a lawsuit by releasing the reports, and — while not admitting any guilt — will pay the $152,000 in legal costs incurred by those who sued, including then-Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and the Florida Center for Government Accountability.
Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, told The Florida Roundup on Friday that the data allows people to make “informed decisions” about how they navigate living in a world where the COVID-19 virus is still circulating.
“If we have access to granular data that can enable businesses, schools, local communities, even families to make decisions that are specific to their situation … you know, rarely have you been able to give a single overarching, ‘here's the state of the pandemic in Florida,' " Salemi said. "It often depends on the who, the when, and the where is it?”
Salemi also said transparency about the data also helps foster a sense of trust in government agencies, especially the state Department of Health.
He said he is skeptical that daily data needed to be released in the first place, saying that weekly data was more than enough to monitor COVID trends.
“I don't necessarily think we need daily data, new data every single day shoved down our throats, because again, I think we can over-respond,” Salemi said. “I honestly hope we don't look back at this huge expenditure of taxpayer dollars, and realize that it actually ended up worsening the meaningfulness of data that the state is providing to the public.”
Barbara Petersen, executive director at The Florida Center for Government Accountability, which helped sue the state to release daily COVID-19 data, said the data came to them with exempted personal health information, which they had to redact and send back to the state.
“We're going to be completing one more review to make sure we got everything," Petersen said. "And once that review is completed, we will put the documents in a Dropbox and allow anyone who wants access to have access.”
As far as the data provided in this report, Salemi said positive tests for COVID are “meaningless” in this stage of the pandemic, because a lot of people aren’t getting tested, or they’re testing at home, which isn’t reported to the state.
“So now, we've already transitioned to wastewater data that, of course, does not depend on testing behavior, does not depend on what kind of test you use. So it's long been a better reflection of viral spread," Salemi said. "And for communities that have these wastewater collection systems, that's a great way to monitor the level of infection in our communities.”
Salemi said vaccination and booster data is especially meaningful, but particularly lacking right now.
According to the latest data from the Department of Health, through the end of September, over 91,000 residents have died from the virus.
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.