As a dispute over raw data published on Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard plays out in public and becomes political fodder, questions are being raised nationwide about the integrity of state and federal public health data.
Among them: why does the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker show 33 percent more COVID-19 tests being performed in Florida than the Florida Department of Health reports?
“We had not expected to see the CDC report a substantially higher test count than reported by any of the states,” the authors of an analysis published Tuesday by The COVID Tracking Project wrote.
“Given that reporting to state public health departments is generally mandatory,” they added, “this is an unsettling discovery.”
On May 9, “109 days after the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States,” the CDC launched its first state-level release of COVID-19 testing data, the analysis said.
In its first 10 days, the site has displayed “a high degree of concordance with official state-reported data” with the exception of testing data, which “differs from official testing data” reported by 42 states and is “cause for concern.”
The COVID Tracking Project reported in 29 states, CDC and state numbers fall within 10 percent of each other, and in 13 states, “the data diverges by 25 percent or more. Adjusting for different reporting methodologies does not fully explain these differences.”
CDC testing numbers for Florida vary more than any state. The analysis showed the state reported 717,000 tests conducted Saturday, and the CDC reported 962,000 – a difference of 245,000 tests, or 33 percent higher.
“Florida requires all tests be reported to the state, so it is difficult to explain the CDC reporting more tests than the state itself,” the analysis said.
The authors suggested three possibilities:
1. Some private laboratories contracted by Florida, which process more than 90 percent of the state’s tests, are reporting only to the CDC;
2. Some CDC-counted tests are duplicates;
3. Some labs reported negative tests to the wrong state.
The COVID Tracking Project analysis was published as controversy erupted over a Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard manager's claim she was fired for refusing to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."
Rebekah Jones, in a mass email to dashboard subscribers and later in emails to media outlets, warned “dramatic changes” are coming to the site’s public access and transparency.
The governor’s office Tuesday night disputed Jones’ version of events.
“Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department [of Health], including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around-the-clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team,” a governor's office statement read.
Earlier on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis called Jones’ allegations a “non-issue.”
Key Florida Democrats disagree, however.
U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch (Boca Raton), Lois Frankel (West Palm Beach), Kathy Castor (Tampa); state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (Miami); Palm Beach County State's Attorney Dave Aronberg; and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried all issued statements implying Jones was fired for political reasons.
Fried wants Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and other DOH officials to explain Jones’ firing to the Florida Cabinet when it meets May 28.
“These actions undermine public trust in our government, are extraordinarily dangerous to public health, and are absolutely inconsistent with the transparency and accuracy that Floridians expect and deserve during this pandemic,” Fried wrote in a letter to DeSantis.