When the coronavirus was raging, Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly said that the best way to monitor the pandemic was to keep track of how many people were seeking hospital treatment for COVID-19.
But, when the state last week stopped issuing daily reports about new cases, deaths and vaccinations, it also stopped requiring hospitals to report how many people it was treating daily for the disease.
That means that data on emergency room visits and hospital admissions, which had fallen significantly in recent weeks, is no longer available not just to the public, but to decision-makers.
What DeSantis once called “leading indicators” of the spread and severity of the disease are now unknown.
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Dr. Jean Malecki, a former longtime director of the Palm Beach County Health Department, said the disappearance of the data is part of the latest disturbing trend.
She said was appalled by Florida’s decision to become the first state in the nation to switch to a weekly reporting system.
“It’s extremely dangerous and a disservice to the community and to humanity,” she said.
With Florida leading the nation in the number of cases of the more contagious and deadly variant strains of the virus, now is not the time to relax reporting requirements, she said.
“This is going to emerge in different ways and people need to be aware of what the heck is going on,” said Malecki, who throughout the pandemic has served as a volunteer consultant to groups in the county from her home in Arizona.
Beth Blauer, executive director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University, said hospital admissions are an important way of monitoring the pandemic.
“It’s one of the critical factors that gave us early cues that the disease was going to get more severe,” said Blauer, who was part of a team that created the university’s much-watched and respected online coronavirus tracker.
She cited Michigan as an example. When daily hospital admissions in the state ballooned from 1,000 a day to 1,500 a day in late March, it gave health and government officials early warning that the virus was spreading rapidly.
Restrictions on large gatherings and mask requirements were extended. Vaccination efforts, with the help of the federal government, were increased.
“Without timely data, policy decisions such as these can be delayed, leading to more unnecessary deaths from COVID-19,” Blauer said.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of Palm Beach County’s state-run health department, said she’s not concerned that hospitals are no longer being required to report their daily COVID-19 admissions, ICU bed use or emergency room visits.
She said she talks with hospital officials at least on a weekly basis.
“We still have access to these folks,” she told county commissioners this week. “If there’s a problem, they can reach out.”
Like Blauer, she raised the specter of Michigan.
“We don’t want to wake up one morning and be Michigan,” she said. “That’s not going to happen in Palm Beach County.”
Further, she said, while the number of new cases diagnosed each day may not be available to the public, it will still be reported to her office. So, if cases spike, she said she could sound an alarm.
A new dashboard is being created by state health officials so information that is now published only on a weekly basis will again be available each day, she said. It is in the planning stages and when it will launch is unknown, she said.
However, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health said the dashboard will be for internal-use only and not available to the public.
Malecki, who served as county health director for 18 years, said sharing data with the public is critical.
“When you don’t report information and you’re not transparent, it creates fear,” she said. “That’s the first thing that creates ill health.”
People need to know the risks they face so they can make reasoned decisions, she said.
“To just say, ‘I’m going to stop reporting and stop giving our population the best information available,’ therein lies the disservice,” she said.
But, state health officials said, the time had come.
To explain why hospitals are no longer being required to report admissions and other data, they used the same phrase state health officials used when they announced Friday that daily reports would no longer be released.
“Florida is transitioning into the next phase of the COVID-19 response,” the Agency for Health Care Administration said in a statement on Wednesday.
It said Florida saw a 41% drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations from May 5 to June 4. On June 3, the agency’s now defunct online reporting system showed 1,779 people hospitalized for treatment of the disease, down from 3,009 on May 5. Patients included 101 in the county on June 3 and 224 on May 5.
“The data is clear that Florida’s health care facilities are well positioned to transition to pre-pandemic activities,” AHCA said in the statement.
Citing significant drops in cases among residents of the state’s roughly 4,000 long-term care facilities, they said nursing homes are no longer being required to report COVID-19 infections either.
“As of June 4, 0.12% of nursing home and assisted living residents were COVID positive,” it said.
Malecki said the turnaround is inexplicable. The state created the online dashboard to give people information they need to protect themselves.
To dismantle the reporting system when less than 50% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated and there are questions whether the vaccines will protect people from emerging variants doesn’t make sense, she said.
“As a public health professional with 40 years of experience, I find it very hard to believe that anyone with any scientific experience or background in public health would agree to do this,” she said.
If she was county health director today, she said her response would swift. “I’d be extremely angry and very vocal,” she said.