An error by the Florida Department of Health produced a COVID-19 positivity rate for children of nearly one-third, a stunning figure that played into the debate over whether schools should reopen.
A week after issuing that statistic, the department took it back without explanation. The next weekly report on children and COVID-19 showed the rate had plunged to 13.4%.
The department blamed a “computer programming error” for the mistake, in response to questions from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Experts said the change and the failure to explain it to the public calls into question the state’s data at a time when accurate and trustworthy information is crucial to a society grappling with an unprecedented health crisis.
“It’s unacceptable to publish information that changes so dramatically that it warrants explanation, and then to not provide any explanation,” said Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health in Tampa. “I’m trying to get an understanding of why the number changed so much, what underlies it — and can we trust this new number.”
The unexplained revision of the child positivity rate follows months of complaints and legal fights over what many see as a lack of transparency in the COVID-19 information provided by the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In the early days of the pandemic, before most people had any idea that coronavirus was spreading in Florida, the state declined to disclose the presence of suspected cases, citing privacy concerns. The state then refused to make public the number of deaths at individual nursing homes, agreeing to do so only under legal pressure from news organizations. And after producing a nationally-praised website on COVID-19, the state Department of Health fired the site’s manager, who has since filed a whistleblower complaint saying she had been punished for refusing to falsify data.