New research published earlier this month in the American Journal of Public Health argues that Florida is undercounting the number of people who died from COVID-19 by thousands of cases, casting new doubt on claims that Gov. Ron DeSantis navigated the coronavirus pandemic successfully.
Conservatives have celebrated DeSantis for his handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000 residents of the state. Critics of the combative governor, meanwhile, say that many of those deaths would have been prevented if he had listened more diligently to health experts. DeSantis resisted lockdowns, downplayed masks and has made it increasingly difficult for localities to institute public health measures of their own.
And the state could be on the cusp of a new coronavirus surge.
The impact of the pandemic in Florida “is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest,” the researchers wrote. They came to that conclusion by comparing the number of estimated deaths for a six-month period in 2020, from March to September, to the actual number of deaths that occurred, a figure known as “excess deaths” because they exceed the estimate.
There were 400,000 excess deaths across the United States in 2020, a spike closely correlated to the coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of testing early in the pandemic may also have undercounted COVID-19 deaths, explains Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health who has also studied the coronavirus and excess deaths.
The issue was further complicated because each state has its own death-counting methodology. “Some states classify a death as due to COVID if a positive molecular test was obtained, while other states allow the death to be classified as due to COVID if there is a suspicion that it was caused by COVID (even without a molecular test),” Weinberger wrote in an email to Yahoo News.
Polymerase chain reaction tests — another name for the molecular tests Weinberger referenced — are the most reliable way to tell if a person, dead or living, has been infected with the coronavirus.
In the case of Florida, the researchers say, 4,924 excess deaths should have been counted as resulting from COVID-19 but for the most part were ruled as having been caused by something else, thus lowering Florida’s coronavirus fatality count. That’s possible because people who die from COVID-19 often have comorbidities, such as diabetes and asthma. That leaves some discretion for medical examiners, who have sometimes struggled with conflicting science and been subject to political pressures during the pandemic.