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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Florida is undercounting COVID-19 deaths, per new report

Posted By on Tue, Mar 30, 2021 at 11:28 AM

  • Photo via Daniel Uhlfelder/Twitter

Editor's note: This story originally misreported the number of excess deaths found to be underreported by the study. While there were over 19,000 excess deaths in the period studied, the number of deaths that researchers believe weren't included in the official tally is 4,924. The story has been updated to reflect this.

It probably won't surprise anyone who has had to live through the state's lackadaisical response to the ongoing global pandemic, but it bears stating plainly: Florida is undercounting COVID-19 deaths.

That's the conclusion reached by a new report published in the American Journal of Public Health. The paper projected average deaths over six months in 2020 using historical data. It then compared that number to the actual deaths in the same time period. The results were staggering, even in a state with over 33,000 reported deaths.

After accounting for the pandemic, researchers found a 15.5% increase in excess deaths, which works out to over 19,000 additional deaths. Over 14,000 of those additional deaths are reported as directly from COVID-19. The researchers found an aberration in all-cause deaths that weren't reported as related to COVID-19. These nearly 5,000 deaths make up the rest of the 19,000 deaths and it's these that researchers believe are underreported.

The conclusion reached in the paper's abstract goes right to the point.

"Total deaths are significantly higher than historical trends in Florida even when accounting for COVID-19–related deaths," researchers wrote. "The impact of COVID-19 on mortality is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest."

Researchers claim they chose Florida specifically because of its rush to get back to normal. With state officials urging the state to go back to work in spite of the raging pandemic, they figured (correctly) that they would find official numbers well out of whack with reality.

Figuring excess deaths is a common enough thing when researchers are hoping to find the toll of a pandemic. Because novel diseases can be hard to quantify at first, and a widespread illness has knock-on effects that can lead to deaths without sickness, researchers know that aberrations in death rates can point toward a truer picture of its impact.

”Pandemics and disasters often cause what we call ‘indirect’ deaths,” CDC data scientist Lauren Rossen explained in a press release. “An example of this is when someone dies of a heart attack or stroke because they were afraid to go to the hospital, or if changes in people’s circumstances lead to increases in suicide or drug overdose. We don’t know what’s really happening until we look at the bigger picture.”

In Florida, the picture is considerably more grim, with 4,924 deaths seemingly missing from our idea of the death toll. Given the state's somewhat dodgy history around reporting the numbers — where potential whistleblowers were harassed by police and the state suppressed reports from medical examiners — we can't say we're surprised.

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