The Florida Department of Health asked the Florida Medical Examiners Commission not to release the commission’s comprehensive list of coronavirus deaths, the commission’s chairman told CNN on Thursday.
Dr. Stephen Nelson said that the commission was told by the Florida Department of Health: “Don’t send it out.”
His comments come after the Tampa Bay Times said that the list from the medical examiners had previously been released in real time, but, after the newspaper reported that the tally was 10% higher than the health department’s tally, state officials directed that the list be reviewed and potentially redacted.
The pause in reporting, the Times said, has been occurring for nine days.
When asked if the difference in tallies indicates any wrongdoing by the Florida Department of Health, Nelson said, “No.”
“Our numbers will never jive with Florida Department of Health because they are counting different things than we are,” Nelson said.
Nelson said on Thursday the tally reported by the medical examiners was 20 deaths lower than the total reported by the Florida Department of Health.
The Florida Department of Health told CNN in a statement that Florida medical examiners “make their own determinations on what level of information to provide” but that the department had concerns with the disclosure of “personal” information – something Nelson says he found odd because the information has been obtained by reporters, including CNN, from individual medical examiners.
While the Florida Department of Health does not publish non-resident Covid-19 deaths, the department released the list upon CNN’s request, which includes 43 cases.
Nelson said the comprehensive list does not include the name of the deceased and only includes age, sex, date of death, cause of death and a summary of what happened. He said the cause of death and the summary of what happened are what the department had an issue with.
Without that information, he asserted the data is “less informative.”
The friction comes as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis contemplates how Florida will begin to reopen amid the pandemic. The governor on Monday noted the central role data related to the pandemic would play in the reopening efforts, saying the return to normal would be “methodical, slow and data driven.” At a White House meeting the following day he said the first steps toward reopening would likely resemble the state’s current status.
“For Florida, going from where we are now to phase 1 is not a very big leap,” DeSantis said. “I think we will be able to be a small step for us. We will approach it in a very measured, thoughtful, and data-driven way.”
Florida, as of early Friday afternoon, has more than 34,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 1,300 deaths from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
CNN has reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment.
The Florida Department of Health told CNN on Wednesday that “reporting deaths by residency is the appropriate method utilized to calculate disease rates, which allow for a more accurate analysis of disease impacts on populations through the incorporation of demographic data – a critical aspect of public health planning.”
The statement from the department added that “per the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), people are listed according to their place of residence. This ensures cases are not inadvertently listed twice.” In effect, the Florida Department of Health count does not include residents of other states who die in Florida. A CDC spokesperson confirmed to CNN on Friday that Florida is consistent with Covid-19 death reporting requirements.
CNN corresponded with two medical examiner offices in Florida who confirmed that medical examiners report deaths within their geographic jurisdiction and not by place of residence.
As a result, the state’s county-by-county Covid-19 death toll and the county-by-county death toll reported by medical examiners will not reconcile.
A spokesperson for the health department also told the Times that the department held conference calls with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which provides administrative support for the Medical Examiners Commission, about privacy concerns for those who passed away from coronavirus.
The spokesperson said the health department did not provide a legal opinion, according to the newspaper.
The spokesperson also pointed to a lag in reporting as a difference.
The Times noted that the difference in figures has been a concern for Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation, who sent a collective letter to DeSantis earlier this month asking for a “detailed explanation of the public health justification” for the difference in tracking methods.
The lawmakers also asked the governor to work with the health department and the medical examiners to make sure coronavirus cases are identified and reported accurately, according to the Times.
This story has been updated to include additional responses and more recent figures.
CNN’s Rosa Flores, Sara Weisfeldt and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.