As confirmed cases of the coronavirus rise in Florida and elsewhere around the country, the Sunshine State’s lack of transparency regarding data reporting has come under intense criticism.
Last month, a data scientist at the Florida Department of Health said she was fired for refusing to manipulate numbers when she created the state’s dashboard for monitoring the number of cases and deaths. And in April, the Miami Herald and other outlets reported that the department had attempted to block the release of medical examiner information regarding Covid-19 deaths in Miami-Dade County. American Oversight has been investigating state and federal responses to the ongoing pandemic, and has obtained documents showing the communications of state and county attorneys regarding the efforts to block the release of those records. The substance of the email exchanges have been reported on by the Herald and others, but many of the emails had not been previously published in their entirety.
In March, the operations manager at the medical examiner’s office in Fort Myers sent an email requesting guidance on how to respond to requests for information about Covid-19 deaths. “I have reached out to [the Department of Health] and they verbally advised that our office is not to release the names; however they have not been able to [cite] statute or otherwise.”
Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chair of the state Medical Examiners Commission, responded, “These public records requests are no different than any other public records request we all receive. They are to be complied with.” James Martin, the deputy general counsel for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), replied that he agreed with Nelson. “I’m not aware of any legal exemption or authority that would prohibit the release of the name of decedent.”
Following the Miami Herald’s late March request for information from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, the health department’s deputy general counsel Christine Lamia sent an email on April 2 to Christopher Angell, Miami-Dade’s assistant county attorney, stating her department’s position that the information “should not be released as it is confidential and exempt from public record disclosure.” The next day, the department’s deputy general counsel, Daniel Medved, followed up with “one additional line of analysis for consideration,” restating the position that the information remained confidential.
Lamia sent another email to Angell on April 9, saying, “It is my understanding that Jim Martin, counsel for FDLE Medical Examiners Commission, is of the legal opinion that the cause of death is exempt. Angell pushed back on this, citing Martin’s March email, and asked Lamia whether Martin had provided a written legal opinion in support of such a change in position. Lamia said she did not have a written opinion, and requested to forward Angell’s email to Martin to ask.
There is no follow-up from Martin after this. Meanwhile, NBC 6 in South Florida also requested medical examiner records, but was blocked by the state. The station published a letter on April 13, also recently obtained by American Oversight, to the Florida Department of Health from Miami-Dade County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams, asking the department to provide a written statement and agreement to defend the county. “I am writing to advise you that the County would like to honor the Florida Department of Health’s … request that the Requested Documents not be disclosed, while also protecting the County from any liability.”
On April 16, the Miami Herald reported on these efforts to convince county attorneys not to provide the requested records, specifically citing Lamia’s April 2 email. Miami-Dade County supplied the requested information anyway, but a week later Florida Today reported that the Department of Health was blocking the state Medical Examiners Commission from releasing any of the data it had collected. The commission had been compiling data from the counties, leading to concerns about discrepancies between its death count and that of the health department, which was lower.
“This is no different than any other public record we deal with,” Nelson, the commission’s chair, told the Tampa Bay Times when the paper reported on the issue. “It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers have a right to know.” The Times also reported that a Department of Health spokesperson had said the department didn’t provide a formal legal opinion on the matter, but the embargo on the public disclosure of commission records didn’t end until late May.
Government transparency and accurate public information are not only vital for functioning democracy; during a public health emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic, they can also save lives. American Oversight will continue to investigate efforts to evade disclosure in Florida and the rest of the country, and to shed light on the government’s response to the current crisis.
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