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As COVID variants spread, Florida refuses to release data

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 2/13/2021 Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel

For weeks as a more contagious mutation of COVID-19 has spread across Florida, top state health officials have kept secret the location of those cases.

Since Jan. 7 — one week after a COVID variant first found in the United Kingdom was detected in Martin County — the Florida Department of Health has ignored repeated inquiries about which other counties had confirmed the presence of the strain.

During that time, reported cases of the mutation spiraled to 347 as of Friday — over twice as many as the next closest state, California, which has 159. And the secrecy has continued without explanation, despite ongoing updates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has reported state-by-state totals for much of the nation.

“What if we only said, ‘Well, in the United States, this is how many variant cases there are’?” said epidemiologist Jason Salemi of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, who launched his own COVID-tracking website for Florida last May. “It wouldn’t be very helpful because it would beg the question, ‘Where in the United States?’”

Having more precise data, he said, would not only give people more information on where the spread is occurring, but more importantly it would give them the chance to act.

“Theoretically, it would tell us where we can try to intervene or implement more stringent mitigation strategies to prevent the spread,” he said.

COVID-19 is caused by a type of coronavirus, a family of viruses named for the crown-like spikes on their exterior. Like all viruses, COVID-19 mutates and can become more or less contagious. It’s also possible for the virus to mutate in a way that makes people sicker or eludes previously developed vaccines.

So far, researchers believe the U.K. variant is as much as 50 percent more transmissible, with cases doubling in the U.S. roughly every 10 days. In January, experts in the U.K. reported that the variant may come with an increased risk of death, but the CDC says more studies are needed to confirm that finding.

Currently approved vaccines in the U.S. appear to be effective against the U.K. strain, although scientists are still studying the vaccines’ power to thwart other variants, including ones from South Africa and Brazil.

“One of the things that I think we’ve been guilty of in the past for whatever reason is under-estimating the enemy,” said professor Mario Stevenson, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Scientists are not prophets — they can’t predict what’s going to happen down the road — but I think these mutations create a sense of urgency.”

The race, he said, is to get people vaccinated quickly — before the virus has a chance to mutate to the point where current vaccines lose their effectiveness.

Florida health officials have made much of the data surrounding COVID-19 public from almost the start, including daily case numbers, deaths and the percent of COVID tests that turn up positive.

“On the one hand, I think it’s very impressive the amount of data and the speed at which the data is released every single day,” said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, who chairs the Department of Epidemiology at Florida International University. “They process, literally, hundreds of thousands of pieces of data.”

But the DeSantis administration has at times worked to prevent the release of important public health information, including, initially, the list of nursing homes where residents had died from COVID-19. And it took a lawsuit filed by attorneys for the Orlando Sentinel to force the release of weekly reports sent to Florida from former President Donald Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force.

One of those reports, dated Jan. 17 but not released for more than a week, warned that the U.K. variant was likely more widespread than data would suggest and that Florida officials should take action immediately — “before an increase in hospitalizations is seen” — including through a campaign with retailers reminding customers to wear masks and “substantially” curtailing or closing public indoor spaces where masks can’t be worn continually.

The state did not adopt the recommendations, and DeSantis has rejected any attempt to further curtail business or tourism, instead focusing on getting everyone 65 and older vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the CDC has projected that the more contagious U.K. variant will become the dominant strain in the U.S. in March.

And because only a sampling of COVID tests undergo the genetic sequencing necessary to find the variant — roughly, one in every 450 positive specimens is tested — researchers continue to warn that the mutation is already much more widespread than even the most recent number of reported cases would suggest.

“I would expect that the variant is in [significant numbers in] our big metropolitan areas, and I would expect that it would be in Orange County, because you’ve got a lot of tourists there,” Trepka said. “But I think there would be a value for those counties that maybe are more rural to know if they have had any variants identified there.”

Some counties, including Orange and Miami-Dade, have chosen to disclose the number of variant cases on their own. Many haven’t.

The state Department of Health has not given a reason for withholding the information. So it’s not known if smaller counties are unable to do the more expensive genetic sequencing needed to detect the variant — or whether other concerns are behind the decision.

“Having this data, especially at a local level, allows health officials and public officials to know what the risk is,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “The only reason not to release it is politics. And you would think that, after almost a year going through this, the state would learn that hiding information is not a good approach to handling a public-health crisis.”

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