By Jesse Scheckner
August 31, 2021
‘Virus politics should not dictate what information is made available to citizens.’
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith has sued the Florida Department of Health and Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, citing the agency’s refusal to release previously public COVID-19 information amid record high cases within the state.
The nonpartisan Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) joined Smith in the suit, which comes more than a month after the Orlando Democrat submitted a public records request for daily COVID-19 pediatric hospitalization and case counts from Orange County.
FLCGA had previously requested COVID-19 data for all 67 Florida counties and was similarly denied.
Smith said the state health department and Rivkees denied him the data “and falsely stated they were ‘confidential’ under state law, even after making those same records available for nearly a year on the Department’s daily COVID dashboard.”
The denial from FDOH, Smith said, came after weeks of the agency “slow-walking” his request.
A Tuesday press note from Smith’s office said the lawsuit demands the FDOH again make public information it previously released daily, including county-level information and other sociodemographic data on the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
FLGCA attorney Andrea Flynn Mogensen, Victor Chapman and Steven Ruta filed the lawsuit Monday evening in Leon County. They requested an immediate hearing.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has consistently passed on opportunities to be more transparent, which has hampered local efforts to stem the spread of the virus, Smith said.
“That’s why we’re suing them — to obtain the public records our constituents are entitled to under the Florida Constitution and to force the state to resume daily COVID dashboard reporting and avoid future litigation on this matter,” he said.
Florida has averaged more than 200 new COVID-19 deaths per day in August, marking the worst period of mortality since the pandemic struck in March 2020. On a possibly related note, DeSantis’ office announced last week that Rivkees will exit the administration in September.
The state discontinued daily updates to its COVID-19 dashboard in early June, switching to weekly reports with far fewer details. Since then, medical and state leaders have called for a return to daily reporting, and even DeSantis himself said resuming data on a day-by-day basis “might not be a bad idea going forward.”
Providing Floridians with more information about potential impacts to their health should be an apolitical issue, FLGCA Director of Public Access Michael Barfield said.
“Virus politics should not dictate what information is made available to citizens so they can then make informed choices about their activities,” he said, adding that it’s among the “reasons why Floridians overwhelmingly passed open government laws.”
Smith sent the Orange County Health Department a public records request July 23. The information he asked for would not have identified any individual person, he is office said. Rather, it “would illustrate the larger impacts of the virus on Orange County — including the ages, sex, ethnic and racial demographics of those with confirmed cases of the virus, and vaccination rates for the county.”
FDOH denied the request. Its reason: The information Smith asked for is “confidential and exempt from public disclosure” in accordance with state rules concerning research of diseases with public health significance, which say information from epidemiological research may be “made public only when necessary to public health.”
FDOH subsequently denied an Aug. 16 request by FLGCA.
Asked to comment on the lawsuit, DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw noted that FDOH reports data “routinely and automatically” to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which updates its national COVID-19 dashboard every weekday.
“Public health surveillance and controlling the spread of infectious diseases have always been core functions of the Florida Department of Health,” she told Florida Politics by email.
Smith joined other Florida Democrats this month to demand more transparency from the state health agency, which has released impossible vaccination rates in several counties across the state.
In Broward, for instance, an FDOH-generated map showed some ZIP codes as of Aug. 3 with vaccination rates at 170% (33,315), 137% (33,019) and 118% (33,326).
FDOH hasn’t responded to any of Florida Politics’ request for information on the matter.
“It … makes it more difficult for those of us on the ground, those of us who have neighbors and family members, to see where we need to target to encourage people to get the vaccine,” Rep. Christine Hunschofsky said at the time. “I was asked by my constituents how (these vaccination rates are) possible. I wasn’t getting very clear answers from the Department of Health.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said Tuesday FDOH is dawdling on a request her office sent 18 days ago for infection numbers and a breakdown of pediatric hospitalizations, among other metrics.
She said she was “encouraged” by the lawsuit Smith and FLGCA filed and called FDOH’s claim that the information she, Smith and others requested is confidential “disingenuous.”
“People are finally stepping up to this administration, (which) is not complying with laws every single day,” she said. “The fact is that information (was) given out last year.”