The Center Square
By John Haughey
September 2, 2021
(The Center Square) – Citing a diminishing pandemic, the Florida Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID-19 data dashboard ceased issuing daily updates of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths in June.
When the delta-variant fueled COVID-19 pandemic hit Florida in July with numbers that eclipsed previous peaks, the DOH, under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ directive, declined calls to return to daily reporting and stayed with posting weekly updates on Fridays.
The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, have sued the DOH and Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees over the state’s “refusal to provide Covid-related statistical records it used to make public daily.”
The 238-page lawsuit, filed late Monday night in Leon County’s 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, features 30 pages of exhibits and seeks an immediate hearing to force the FDOH to daily publish “county-level information and other sociodemographic data on the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”
The suit contends that Smith, a member of the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, in a July 23 letter asked Rivkees for 14 days’ worth of daily Orange County COVD-19 case counts, positivity rates, hospitalizations, death rates and vaccinations.
In an Aug. 9 emailed reply, DOH Legislative Director Drew Love told Smith “the specific data you have requested for Orange County are considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure.”
In the suit, Smith claims the DOH “falsely stated the information was ‘confidential’” under state law, “even after making those same records available for nearly a year on the Department’s daily COVID dashboard.”
DOH’s denial, Smith said, came after weeks of “slow-walking” his request for daily updates which, as a member of the state legislature, he claims he is entitled to under Article I, Section 24 of Chapter 119, of the state Constitution.
Smith said the requested information would not have identified any individual but “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.”
Rivkees, who is leaving his state surgeon general post in September, maintains such information can be withheld in accordance with state rules concerning epidemiological research, which may be “made public only when necessary to public health.”
That’s nonsense, Smith told the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday. “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.
FLGCA Director of Public Access Michael Barfield in a statement said providing Floridians with more information about potential impacts to their health should be an apolitical issue but because Florida’s governor is running for president on Fox News, it has become anything but,
“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 the burgeoning disconnect between common sense public health policies and political ambitions is among “reasons why Floridians overwhelmingly passed open government laws.”
DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw told Florida Politics Tuesday that DOH reports data “routinely and automatically” to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CVDC), 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” and continues to be so, she said.