Florida reverses course on COVID-19 medical examiner data, making information public
Florida is no longer suppressing information in the table of COVID-19 deaths compiled by the state’s medical examiners, according to Dr. Stephen J Nelson, the chairman of the state’s medical examiners commission.
“It is no longer embargoed. It is once again a public record,” Nelson told FLORIDA TODAY on Wednesday.
The states’ medical examiners are tasked with investigating and certifying COVID-19 deaths. This includes cause of death determinations. A COVID-19 positive test result is a requirement for reporting any death as due to the coronavirus.
FLORIDA TODAY, part of the USA TODAY Network, first reported that cause of death and descriptive entries of the medical examiners database were suppressed from public record in April. The Tampa Bay Times earlier in April reported that the count of the deaths by medical examiners diverged from the Department of Health’s death count, at times by as much as 10%.
FLORIDA TODAY published unredacted versions of that database after it had been blocked from public release.
Why the state suddenly changed its position is not clear.
“I think they’ve realized it’s a public record,” Nelson said. “You can’t suddenly tell the medical examiners that what we’re doing all along, is exempt because it contains confidential death information.
“That’s what we do is deal with deaths, all the time,” he said.
The timing of the reversal comes as the state faces scrutiny over data as it reopens. Earlier in the week the scientist who created Florida’s COVID-19 data portal said she was fired by the Department of Health for refusing to manipulate data.
Nelson said “all I can tell you about the timing is: this has been my position for months now.”
Attorneys representing a consortium of newspapers including the USA TODAY Network had pressed for the data’s release, arguing that it was a public record. Nelson also credited that pressure for the change in policy.
Follow Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon on Twitter: @alemzs