September 25, 2022

Florida’s government leaders and residents spent the first months of the pandemic trying to make decisions based on inaccurate or incomplete information, according to a new report by the state auditor general’s office.

State health officials’ efforts to track the coronavirus outbreak were plagued by problems with data on the number of coronavirus cases and deaths and on the basic demographics of victims, the report concluded.

Those and other flaws meant that “government officials and the general public may not have had all the information necessary to assess the efficacy of Covid-19 control measures and take appropriate actions,” said the report, which was released on Monday.

The report examined data reporting by state health agencies from March to October 2020, when the pandemic first began ravaging the nation. Florida joined states including Delaware, Ohio, Iowa and Louisiana in acknowledging such difficulties in those early months, a period when officials in Florida, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, became some of the strongest critics of recommendations from public health experts about masking and lockdowns.

Most notably, the audit identified discrepancies between death records logged in the state health department database used to track the outbreak and other government records. According to the report, 3,082 Covid-related deaths were included in the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics data but not in the public database. Over the same period, 2,495 deaths recorded in the public database were not recorded in the bureau’s data.

In some cases, the discrepancies could be traced to misspellings or formatting errors, but the audit also found instances of Covid-related deaths recorded by the vital statistics bureau that were not included in the public database.

The state also had an incomplete picture of test results in those early months, when scarcity of testing was an enormous public health challenge.

A review of 2,600 coronavirus tests conducted by three laboratories under state contracts concluded that the labs had failed to send the state the results of nearly six in 10 tests. And of the more than 5.5 million profiles of people who were reported to have taken tests, more than half omitted the race and nearly 60 percent left out the ethnicity of the person being tested, the report stated. Hundreds of thousands more did not identify either the state, the city or the street address of those tested.

Some of those shortcomings went undetected because the state never compared the number of coronavirus tests administered by state-hired laboratories to the number of test results that were returned. Nor did the state check the accuracy of coronavirus reports from hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, all of which “did not always report required information,” the report said.

Missing and belatedly submitted reports of illnesses and deaths — some deaths took as long as two months to make it into the database — made it hard to measure the scope of the pandemic. They also hamstrung contact-tracing, in which workers tried to track down everyone who came into contact with an infected person.

Florida health officials said they agreed with many of the auditor general’s conclusions, but also blamed testing laboratories and, on occasion, other state agencies for some of the problems. Agency heads said the state was seeking to replace manual medical and test records with electronic ones.

They also said contact-tracing efforts were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Covid infections — 23,000 a week, on average, during the time covered by the report. The state has since halted efforts to track down contacts with infected people.

A spokesman for the health department, Jeremy Redfern, said that delays and inaccuracies could be traced in part to the differing data reporting standards employed by different agencies.

“There are ways we can try to bring together vital statistics and surveillance reports,” he said. “But realistically, the differences are going to be there, and they’re expected.”

Mr. DeSantis’s office did not respond to messages seeking comment on Wednesday.

The state’s handling of Covid-19 has been a point of both medical and political controversy. Mr. DeSantis has cast the White House Covid-19 adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as an opponent of freedom in his re-election campaign ads.

In September, he named a new state surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, who has made several false claims: that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine can cure Covid-19, that masks do not stop the spread of the virus and that coronavirus infections are less deadly than those from the flu.

In March, the state health department, under Dr. Ladapo’s leadership, issued guidance saying healthy children may not benefit from vaccination, contradicting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sarah Cahalan contributed.

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