The DeSantis administration has agreed to release years of previously suppressed data about Covid’s spread in Florida to settle a lawsuit filed by a former state House member, a government openness group, and news organizations.
The Florida Department of Health will resume posting on its website details of vaccination counts, case counts, and deaths weekly by county, age group, gender, and race in the future. Additionally, the department will pay $152,000 in litigation costs to the plaintiffs. The agency did not admit wrongdoing or violations of state law.
Furthermore, the department has released 25 gigabytes of data gathered since June 2021 to the plaintiffs, which are free to publish them once they’ve been scrubbed of any personally identifiable information, said Michael Barfield, a paralegal who serves as director of public access initiatives for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, which was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The center seeks to enforce public-records laws through litigation.
The department first released the information to plaintiffs’ attorneys in March in response to an order from the First District Court of Appeal, according to a timeline released by the center. That led directly to the settlement, it said.
‘It was almost entirely Excel spreadsheets. A few PDFs and emails. We actually got more than we asked for,” Barfield said by email.
“It will be up to epidemiologists to parse through that information to tell us what the raw data would have told us two years ago when Floridians needed this information to determine the risks of opening Florida for business,” he said.
Additional plaintiffs include Carlos Guillermo Smith, who represented portions of Orange County in the state House through 2022 and now is a candidate for state Senate, and who filed his lawsuit in August 2021; The Associated Press; The New York Times; The Washington Post; Gannett, publisher of a number of Florida newspapers; the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel Co.; broadcaster Scripps Media Inc.; and the First Amendment Foundation.
“The DeSantis administration settled in our favor because they knew they were wrong,” Smith told the Phoenix.
The data must appear for at least three years following the date of the settlement, which gives the department 30 days from the date of the agreement to post fresh numbers going forward, or Oct. 28, according to Smith.
The outcome “means the public will have better, clearer access to public health data for the next three years, at least. Which is really, really important for health care professionals, for epidemiologists, and for the public’s right to know,” Smith said.
The administration published the same sort of data every day from the onset of the pandemic through the summer of 2021, when it switched to publication evert two weeks.
“Right after they changed that reporting back in 2021 was when the Delta surge hit, and that was the worst part of the pandemic in Florida as far as deaths in the state. And the vaccine was available, which is mind boggling.”
“From a retroactive perspective, evaluation of the data will help us understand why so many deaths occurred during the summer/fall of 2021 and whether those deaths could have been limited,” Barfield said.
“Going forward, the requirement that the department publish this detailed information on its website promotes transparency and allows all Floridians to see the level of Covid-19 infections and deaths in their particular communities. Finally, Floridians can make their own decisions about whether the release of vital information affecting public health and safety was suppressed to fit a political narrative,” he added.
In a September 2021 court filing, the department suggested the plaintiffs had failed to show that it at that time was collecting the data breakdown sought or that the information was subject to public disclosure.
In a written statement to the Phoenix, health department spokesman James Williams emphasized that the agency conceded no fault.
“Covid-19 data has been made available through historical Department reports, and the department has always reported data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is unfortunate that we have continued to waste government resources arguing over the formatting of data with armchair epidemiologists who have zero training or expertise,” Williams said.
One object of a legal settlement is to avoid a court order by giving ground on the plaintiff’s demands.
“While some individuals may continue to grapple for political relevancy and disregard providing the public with the truth, we will continue serving Floridians by executing our core mission of protecting, promoting, and improving the health of all people in Florida,” Williams concluded.