Florida health agencies are fumbling in the fight against COVID, state audit finds

It didn’t take an audit from Florida’s Auditor General to confirm what many of us suspected all along: Florida’s COVID-19 pandemic data was, and most likely remains, in error. The words “inaccurate” and “incomplete” appear throughout the 30-page audit report, along with other descriptions that do not inspire confidence.

“…The number of entities reporting data, apparently inaccurate or incomplete data reported to the state by these entities, and the lack of effective access controls in the systems used to collect data, have impacted on the state’s ability to accurately report COVID-19 data early in the pandemic,” the report said.

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Florida underreported COVID cases and deaths and botched analysis and collection of test results, confirming the disinterested attitude of Governor Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, whose anti-mask policies helped the virus spread.

If authentic data is important to Florida health agencies, the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Health, and the Division of Emergency Management haven’t shown it — not to auditors. the state and certainly not to the public. With pandemic deaths in Florida now totaling 74,800, the DeSantis administration needs to do better.

COVID-19 no longer strikes fear in the hearts of many Floridians. Gone are the long lines for coronavirus tests, crowded intensive care units, overworked medical staff and infected patients dying on hospital ventilators. Take a look almost anywhere, whether it’s the Atlantic Avenue promenade, the hotspots along Clematis Street, or the aisles of the local grocer, and you’ll see a population devoid of masks and no showing no lingering concerns about the virus.

There should be concern. Last month, the US Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,234 cases of adults hospitalized with COVID in Florida, a slight increase from reports in March and December. Another sign of trouble: while the Omicron variant is milder than the previous Delta variant, new, more contagious Omicron subvariants have been found in the southeastern United States, including within a few dozen miles of us, in Miami-Dade County.

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With a more contagious virus still present, we cannot afford a lukewarm response, let alone rely on shoddy data from responsible state agencies. Bad data impacts the ability of public health agencies and the wider medical community to respond with effective care. Unfortunately, after the Auditor General’s office reviewed nearly 11.3 million lab test results and 730,000 documented COVID cases statewide, auditors discovered that much of the data was missing. If ever the adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies, it’s here.

For example, the report found that a majority – 51.5% – of the 5.5 million+ COVID test results failed to identify a patient’s race. About 59% lacked information on ethnicity and a much smaller but notable number, 75,828 results, had no indication of gender.

Auditors found that a lab that received more than $5.4 million from the state in July and August 2020 did not include ID numbers or dates for the COVID tests administered, leading to fact that a number of tests have not been published in public reports on the virus.

There were other issues, including the inability to conduct initial contact tracing, routine testing to verify the completeness of all reported test results, and documentation that hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities reported their daily census counts of available beds, staffing needs, ventilators used and face mask inventory. Add to that the need to limit access to technology to limit the risk of unauthorized data modification, and the challenges become clear.

The problem lies in leadership priorities, best exemplified by the recent successful intimidation of Governor DeSantis and Dr. Ladapo against the Special Olympics. Heads of state have threatened a $27.5 million fine for demanding attendees be vaccinated against COVID. They prefer to make it their priority rather than bolstering state resources to detect and combat this or any future pandemic.

When it comes to COVID data collection, limited government may look good on the campaign trail, but when faced with a public health crisis, a partisan talking point goes no further. Florida health agencies need to be able to operate.

The auditor’s report went to great lengths to praise “the great effort” made by state employees to respond to the outbreak. Faced with bureaucratic constraints, they rose to the occasion. The same cannot be said for those at the top.