Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis, Creative Commons license 2.0

Something funny is going on with Florida's official website for coronavirus data. The Palm Beach Post reports that Monday night, the Florida Department of Health database was scrubbed of data indicating that 171 people in Florida had either reported symptoms or tested positive for the virus prior to the state's first officially reported case of COVID-19. The earliest of those reports was on January 1, when everyone thought there were no cases outside China.

Fortunately for the record, the Post had been downloading the data since the state started posting the information shortly after the March 1 announcement of Florida's first confirmed case of COVID-19. And golly, what a surprise this is: The data was removed without any explanation, and "Department of Health officials and the governor's office did not answer detailed questions on Tuesday."

Probably because they were all too busy creating jobs and celebrating the state's return to normality, since Gov. Ron DeSantis also began lifting restrictions on restaurants and retail stores in all but the three most heavily affected Florida counties Monday.


As of yet, there's no evidence that Ron DeSantis ordered the change or was even aware of it, so we can only speculate as to whether he, like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, might be trying to scrub inconvenient data. For now, we'll just mark that box as "probable but unproven fuckery based on who we're dealing with here."

Since March, Florida has been posting all confirmed cases of COVID-19 to the Department of Health website, with the patients' names removed. Until late Monday night, each case description

included a date that represented one of two things: when the patient first reported feeling symptoms or when the patient received a positive test result.

The database didn't specify when exactly the patients' symptoms were reported to the states or whether local health officials investigated at the time, but all 171 of the cases the Post found with a date prior to March 1 were definitely confirmed to have the virus. The entries do still include the date each case was added to the database.

The Post notes that

In the early days of January, it is unlikely patients were tested for the novel coronavirus. Such tests were tightly controlled by the CDC and limited to travelers who had been to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated. None of the 171 patients reported travel to China.

It is not clear from the data how the state treated the patients or even when they found out about their symptoms.

The entire dataset disappeared from the state website Monday only to return after 7:30 p.m. without the information relating to the timing of the symptoms.

Here are a few examples the Post identified from the pre-purge data:

A 4-year-old Duval County girl started feeling symptoms or had her first positive test on Jan. 1. The state did not officially record her case until April 8.

An 84-year-old Palm Beach County man who had not traveled, but was hospitalized, had symptoms or a positive result on Feb. 5. But his case was not added to Florida's coronavirus tally until April 3 [...]

A 65-year-old man in Broward County who had traveled to the Cayman Islands listed symptoms or a positive test on Jan. 4 but his case was not recorded until March 7.

A 30-year-old Broward County man, whose symptoms or first positive result came on Feb. 25, died. His case was added March 15.

The data also showed that most of those early patients — 103 of them — said they hadn't traveled, while 52 had. And only six of the 171 were not residents of Florida.

The records seem consistent with the idea that the virus was already being spread in the US earlier than previous reports suggested.

The first report of a coronavirus-related death in the United States came Feb. 29 in the Seattle area. But medical officials there later learned that the virus had killed two more people on Feb. 26.

And then autopsies conducted in Santa Clara County, Calif., confirmed COVID-19 had killed two residents on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17.

In January, when the United States confirmed its first coronavirus infection — a Washington man who returned home from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated — the disease already had spread to thousands of Americans, researchers now estimate.

Not to get political or anything, but this seems like a useful moment to point out that Donald Trump has insisted that he should be praised for banning most passenger flights from China on January 31, although the order didn't actually go into effect until February 2. Then he spent a month and a half downplaying the outbreak, saying it would soon vanish, and insisting that anyone calling for more aggressive public health measures was pushing a political hoax.

This isn't the first report of data on the Florida coronavirus site doing funny things. In March, following a tip, public radio station WLRN reported that it had

identified a series of instances where information about reported COVID-19 cases altogether disappeared, was removed and then re-added, or might have been altered in some kind of fundamental way, to the point where it is unclear what's actually being shown to the public.

University of Chicago hospital system data analyst Nora Friedman told WLRN in March that the inconsistencies were likely the result of "confusion" as the state got its data collection and reporting operations together, but emphasized that "Consistency is key when you're reporting this kind of public health data."

So maybe the vanishing dates in this latest example are all just an innocent update problem, yes, sure, they could be.

The Post spoke to former Pinellas County Health Department director Dr. Claude Dharamraj, who said tracing cases in January of this year would have been difficult even if the patients with symptoms had set off the Bat Signal (OK, that's us, not Dr. Dharamraj):

A national shortage of coronavirus tests would have made tracing impossible, she said.

"We can contact those who have been exposed, but it does no good when you can't test," she said.

Thank goodness we now have all the tests we need, and plans for complete contact tracing went into place before states started lifting restrictions. To do otherwise would be insane.

[Palm Beach Post / WLRN / Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis, Creative Commons license 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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