As Ron DeSantis hypes low numbers, Florida may be undercounting coronavirus deaths by up to 58%

A new model also projects that Florida will be hit hard over the next four weeks as the state reopens

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 22, 2020 3:42PM (EDT)

Ron DeSantis (AP/John Raoux)
Ron DeSantis (AP/John Raoux)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lashed out at the media Wednesday for criticizing his coronavirus response, claiming that his state had defied expectations even as a new analysis showed it might be undercounting deaths by up to 58%.

DeSantis, a Republican, countered criticisms of the firing of state health department's COVID-19 data chief by arguing that Florida had the "best data" among its 49 peers. The governor also touted that Florida had a "lower death rate" than most regions in the country. 

"People just don't want to recognize it, because it challenges their narrative," he claimed. "It challenges their assumption, so they've got to try and find a boogeyman."

But an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times and a health researcher at the University of South Florida found that Florida's death toll might be too good to be true. According to the findings, the "epidemic's true toll" might be between 17% and 58% higher than the reported numbers.

"Health experts say that likely includes some people who died of coronavirus but were never diagnosed, as well as others who might have lived had the pandemic not kept them from getting care," the Tampa Bay Times reported.

"There are indirect and direct consequences of a pandemic like this," Mark Hayward, an expert in mortality statistics at the University of Texas at Austin, told the outlet. "Of course, we know the direct consequences. Some of the other ones are poorly measured."

Recent analyses by The New York Times and Washington Post similarly found that coronavirus deaths around the country have been undercounted due to a lack of testing and other factors. At the same time, President Donald Trump and members of the White House coronavirus task force have reportedly pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change how they count deaths, which would lower the death toll.

Florida officials have likewise leaned on medical examiners to stop releasing their own death counts after they showed more deaths than the official state total. DeSantis' recent complaints about the media came as he defended the firing of Rebekah Jones, the architect of the state's coronavirus dashboard, who claims that she was terminated for refusing to manipulate data to support the governor's reopening plan.

DeSantis counter claimed that Jones was fired by the state for insubordination and denied that she was the "architect" of the dashboard, which was praised by White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx. Jones said she wrote "every line of code."

DeSantis' cited Birx's praise as he criticized the media for what he called a "partisan narrative" surrounding his push to reopen.

"You've got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York," DeSantis said. "'Wait two weeks, Florida is going to be next. Just like Italy — wait two weeks.' Well, hell, we're eight weeks away from that — and it hasn't happened."

But infectious disease experts warned that DeSantis' boasts might be premature.

A new model developed by the PolicyLab at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia projects that a "second wave" of coronavirus infections will hit Southeast Florida and southern states over the next four weeks, according to the Washington Post.

"As communities reopen, we're starting to detect evidence of resurgence in cases in places that have overreached a bit," David Rubin, the director of PolicyLab, told the outlet.

Rubin said that South Florida is expected to get particularly hard.

"That Southeast coast, they're just starting to open up and relax," he said. "It's a densely crowded area. There's a lot of tinder down there."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Coronavirus Covid-19 Deborah Birx Donald Trump Florida Politics Rebekah Jones Ron Desantis