South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
State’s response is shrouded in secrecy: Amonth-bymonth timeline.
How far has the coronavirus spread in Florida’s nursing homes, day-care centers, schools and prisons?
Florida’s news outlets, families of long-term care residents, parents and public health researchers have tried toget information all year about the spread of the pandemic. But Gov. Ron DeSantis and various state agencies have held back until pressured— often by lawyers— to disclose the details.
Here’s a look at Florida’s pattern of secrecy about COVID-19.
February: Cases under investigation
When Floridians first arrived in emergency rooms with COVID-like symptoms, reporters began asking how many people were being monitored or tested for coronavirus and in what counties. Florida health officials initially refused to answer, citing a privacy law that many lawyers said didn’t apply in a public health emergency. The agency did not release the information until March, when it disclosed its first confirmed cases and deaths.
March: Cases in long-term care facilities
As families of nursing home residents began to report their loved ones had C OVID -19, news organizations asked for the names of all elder-care facilities that had reported infections. Florida’s Agency for HealthCare Administration refused to divulge the information, citing medical privacy, even as other states were making the data public. Lawyers for a coalition of news organizations pressed for the information.
Threeweeks later Florida released the names of the homes but would not reveal the total number of cases in each facility.
But families wanted to knowthe situation at the homes where their loved ones lived. News outlets pressed for the cumulative numbers at individual long-term care facilities; another 10 days passed before Florida finally released the statistics and continues to update them on the state COVID-19 dashboard.
April: Deaths at long-term care sites
As the death toll rose among the elderly in Florida, the state would not provide the number of coronavirus deaths connected with individual long-term care facilities. News organizations, including the South Florida Sun Sentinel, filed suit under the state’ s public records law to force the release of the information. Elder advocates and families of long-term care residents also pleaded with the state to release the information, saying itwas of vital public interest.
After more than a month of refusing, Florida’s health administrators finally released detailed information and continues to update it.
April/May: COVID-19 deaths
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement in April refused requests to release the name, age, ethnicity and other information about the people who died of COVID-19. Individual medical examiners insome counties would release information, but it took legal pressure from news outlets before the FDLE agreed to release records it collected fromall medical examiners in the state.
FDLE finally published the document on May 6. Now, the Department of Health publishes a daily list of COVID deaths in Florida residents by county, age and gender. It does not include race or names. May: Prison cases and deaths
The Florida Department of Corrections refused to disclose test results for inmates. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued. The Department of Corrections also refused to reveal which prisons housed inmates who had died, citing “privacy concerns.” The Department of Corrections now reports deaths by the facility weekly.
July: Hospitalizations from COVID-19
A key piece of information has been the impact of COVID patients on hospitals. But while the state kept daily hospitalizations for COVID, itwould not release them to the public. Thestate eventually relented, but Florida was one of the last three states to release that information.
August/September: COVID-19 in schools
Despite the enormous interest in schools, the De Santis administration refused to make public a report that showed the number of infections in counties that had resumed in-person classes.
On Aug. 29, Florida’s health department had published the report, but removed it a day later, saying it was not supposed to be public yet.
It took a full month and prodding by parents, teachers, educational organizations and the media for health officials to release the school report on Sept. 29. The report includes the number of cases in each school and gets updated weekly on the Department of Health COVID-19 website.
October: Cases in day cares
Lawyers representing news outlets have made repeated requests for information about cases in day-care centers. On Nov. 19, the Florida Department of Health said it does not intend to publish any day-care COVID numbers.
November: Coronavirus task force report
The governor’ s office has not provided November White House Co roan virus Task Force reports to the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets who have asked for them. The White House has said the reports can be made public but leaves the decision up to individual states.
The report documents the state- and county-level status of the pandemic and provides early warnings and virus control recommendations. The Orlando Sentinel obtained the most recent reports on Florida from a third party. The Nov. 22 report shows Florida is in the midst of a “viral resurgence” and indicates an increase in hospitalizations.
Only seven states have never made the reports public in anyway, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In the past, Florida made them public through a records request, but weeks or sometimes months after theywere relevant.