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Crist says he’s losing confidence in Florida’s COVID-19 data, calls for more transparency

Margie Manning

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State data for COVID-19 cases does not include the ZIP code that is home to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.

Rep. Charlie Crist is calling on Florida officials to provide more information about how public health data is being reported among the COVID-19 crisis.

Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg

Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said the data is key to being able to get the economy back on track, while also keeping people safe from infection.

“My confidence level [in the state data] is fading,” Crist told the St. Pete Catalyst in a May 26 interview. “I share the concerns of Floridians about the state’s lack of transparency about COVID figures.”

The Catalyst reached out to Crist and other local officials after finding irregularities in ZIP code data reported by the state, including data regarding the 33744 ZIP code in Pinellas County. That ZIP code includes the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.

A state dashboard showing COVID-19 cases by ZIP code initially included 33744 ZIP code data for about three weeks, then stopped displaying data for that ZIP code. A spokeswoman said the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, the main facility on the Bay Pines campus, has had 54 positive COVID-19 cases including both veterans and staff.

The spokeswoman said the medical center reports its data  to the Florida Department of Health. State officials did not respond to several emailed requests from the Catalyst for information about the 33744 ZIP code data. Crist told the Catalyst that his office will look into the issue.

Crist said he’s been calling for transparency since the early days of the outbreak.

“Back on Feb. 6, I called for transparency as a fundamental tool in combatting what ended up being a global pandemic. Now that the pandemic is in our communities, people deserve the truth and nothing less. You can trust the people with the truth. How can we reopen as safely as possible if we don’t have a full picture of how the virus is spreading throughout Pinellas County or maybe it isn’t,” Crist said. “It just isn’t about the health. We also want accurate data so that customers and tourists have the confidence to get back to normal. If you are hiding something you’ll get the worst of both worlds and uncontrolled spread and economic depression.”

‘Troubling pattern’

The Florida Department of Health launched its COVID-19 data and surveillance dashboard on March 16, listing total numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalizations statewide and by county. The state added total cases by ZIP code to the dashboard on April 4, and the Catalyst has been tracking that data since then, adding our own interactive Pinellas County ZIP code map on April 11.

The state added test results by county within the past few weeks to the dashboard. The state also has a comprehensive daily written report on COVID-19 statewide, with a separate daily report detailing surveillance in every county.

The state data is the basis for much of the information on other dashboards, including those released by Pinellas County and by the Tampa Bay Partnership on May 20.

Questions about the state data began to surface after some news organizations cited the lack of information about COVID-19 cases at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, as well as overall mortality data reported by medical examiners statewide. The long-term care facilities data has since been made public.

On May 18, Rebekah Jones, the geographic information system manager for Department of Health’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, said she had been asked to manipulate data on the dashboard, a claim she repeated in a May 22 blog post after she was fired from her job.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that Jones was fired for insubordination.

Crist has co-signed a May 19 letter from Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, to DeSantis and Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s surgeon general, expressing concerns over Jones’ firing.

“This appears to be a troubling pattern by the State of Florida,” Castor’s letter said. “The State previously withheld important data regarding nursing home infections and deaths, and overall mortality data reported by Medical Examiners across the State. Floridians, scientists and public health experts need accurate and timely information regarding infections, testing, disparities and mortalities in order to make the best decisions about going to work, going to school and going out in public. The State’s lack of transparency around COVID-19 public health data is troubling and unwise. It is vital to help us keep our neighbors safe and that they have confidence that our government is reporting honestly.”

Crist, himself a former Florida governor, said he hoped DeSantis understood the importance of transparency.

“I’m concerned that the removal of Jones may indicate otherwise,” Crist said.

ZIP code irregularities

While Jones’ claims and DeSantis’ response have been widely covered by state and national news outlets, less has been said about irregularities in the ZIP code data.

There were 342 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pinellas County on April 4, when the ZIP code data was introduced. The health department said the data ideally reflected a person’s residence, but also could reflect the hospital where an individual was admitted or tested.

At that time, the state released specific numbers of cases for seven ZIP codes. Another 22 ZIP codes in Pinellas had between five and nine cases. Sixteen ZIP codes had less than five cases. Four ZIP codes had zero cases.

The 33744 ZIP code was among those with fewer than five cases, the dashboard said. That ZIP code, which includes the Bay Pines campus, is about a one-half square mile area with a population of 148 people, according to unitedstateszipcode.org

The state continued to report fewer than five cases in the 33744 ZIP code through April 24. when the ZIP code no longer appeared on the dashboard. Also removed from the dashboard was data for the 33730 ZIP code, which is the ZIP code for the main U.S. Post Office in St. Petersburg. The 33730 ZIP code had been reported previously as among those with zero cases.

On April 29, the Catalyst sent an email to the Florida Department of Health asking why the data for the 33744 ZIP code no longer was appearing. The email was forwarded to Rebekah Jones, who responded there had been an issue with the system pushing data out to the dashboard that had since been fixed. Jones said she was working to fill in the gaps while the server was unresponsive. However, the 33744 ZIP code data was not added back to the dashboard.

On May 8, after none of the Pinellas ZIP codes had been updated for two days, the Catalyst again reached out to Jones, and received an email saying the GIS Office was no longer managing the COVID-19 dashboard or its data. The Catalyst was referred to the Florida Department of Emergency Management, which has not responded to several requests for information about the lack of data for the 33744 ZIP code.

As of May 26, a total of 13 staff and 41 veterans have tested positive for COVID-19 at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, the spokeswoman said. Of the 13 staff, 10 cases were community acquired and three were work related. Of the 41 veterans who have tested positive, 27 were tested at the medical center and 14 were tested in the community and were reported to the medical center, the spokeswoman said.

The state dashboard currently displays the Bay Pines complex within the 33708 ZIP code, and says there are a total of 10 cases in that ZIP code.

It’s possible the lack of 33744 ZIP code data was simply a change in state reporting that officials failed to clarify, but the lack of 33744 ZIP code data for Bay Pines is concerning to Crist. “It treats our heroes and those that literally were willing to put their lives on the line,” he said. “Pinellas residents have a right to know if their ZIP code is a hot spot and ignoring the pandemic will not make it go away. My office will continue to look into this issue.”

A second anomaly in the data is that the combined number of confirmed cases in each individual ZIP code does not equal the total number of cases reported in Pinellas County.

As of Tuesday, Pinellas County had a total of 1,196 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The total number of cases reported by ZIP code ranged between 1,112 and 1,118. The cumulative total is a range because two ZIP codes were listed as simply having fewer than five cases.

The Department of Emergency Management did not respond to a question about why there was a difference of between 78 and 84 cases between the reported county total and the cumulative ZIP code total.

The ZIP code data only lists total cases and does not include other information reported by the state, such as deaths, hospitalizations or testing. Additionally, none of the data includes the number of people who have recovered from COVID-19.

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    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    May 27, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    Rep. Crist, you are right to not feel secure about the overall handling of the epidemic by Pres 45 and Governor /Desantis. Hiding, fudging the numbers is what I believe they are doing. Florida is Not in good hands.

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