Florida’s Fight for COVID Data

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S1: For several weeks now, journalists in Florida have been trying to get their hands on a series of documents, the White House Coronavirus Task Force RedZone reports these get sent out every week tailored to each individual state. They sum up infection data, make recommendations, stuff like begin warning about any gathering during the December holidays, ensure masks at all times in public. Pretty basic stuff. Some governors simply release these documents. In Florida, journalists had to fight for it. They got a break last Friday when the Center for Public Integrity published them.

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S2: These reports indicate that they are strongly recommending that the governor take immediate action to do things that will slow the spread because they’re watching the numbers rise.

S1: Mary Ellen class writes for the Miami Herald, Are those things that Governor Santos has done?

S2: Well, what he has done is the reverse of that.

S3: At the beginning of September, he opened everything.

S2: He eliminated all capacity limits in dining establishments, and he imposed a rule that said that local governments could not impose anything stronger or enforce anything stronger. They they can impose curfews and and limits, but they can’t enforce them.

S4: So that’s not very useful. Exactly. Their hands are tied for Mary Ellen, what’s happening with these reports?

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S1: It’s a good example of what’s happening around the state with covid information. It flows erratically. The Department of Health collects a massive amount of data, but holds some of it back. There’s also a private competitor in the mix. They calculate their infection rate in their own way. The city of Miami created its own data hub, and in the absence of consistent information, the state has yet to implement consistent covid policy. Do you it feels like there’s the state of Florida, but really there are kind of like lots of different. States of Florida, the places where there’s massive mandates and rules and the places where there’s not, and then, yeah, that’s exactly what we have.

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S2: And, you know, it’s it’s follows along the red versus blue way of thinking. In many ways, it’s it’s Florida is a very polarized place. And it’s always been a little bit of a microcosm of the nation.

S1: Today on the show, how a fight over Florida’s coronavirus data has become a fight about Florida’s coronavirus policy. Will it change in Washington? Be able to change what’s happening in states like this one.

S4: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Mary Ellen class is the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Miami Herald. She works in the state capital. That means she’s got this up close view of the way the governor sees the coronavirus and how that often puts the local leaders turning to him for guidance in a tough spot. The data about infection and hospitalization rates, they change from place to place and the rules due to do you need to wear a mask? Is it safe to eat indoors? Depends who you ask, but Mary Ellen says Governor de Santos, he could step in here and solve this if he wanted to.

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S2: I think what we’re missing is a uniform or unified message. So we’ve just had this very, you know, uneven message coming to people. At the same time, the governor is saying everything is good, we should all go and, you know, go out to do whatever we want and kind of countering that caution. He had a press conference on Friday where he was talking about the mental health needs of first responders. And, you know, there’s going to be a new initiative coming and we’re going to be focusing a lot of attention on on how hard it is for first responders. Then he answered a bunch of questions about where we are with the coronavirus crisis in the state and the vaccine and didn’t mention anything about being cautious or wearing masks, but just was enormously defensive. And then that night, Friday night, he posted on a family photo of him at a high school football game and saying, look at what we what everyone should be doing. He should be out going to public events. So while we have a lot of data, we also have a lot of conflicting messages. And so that, I think, has left people just baffled about what is right.

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S1: Does anyone ever say to Ron DeSantis, our numbers are rising? What are you doing about that?

S2: People have asked him, is the numbers in the state have risen? Do you think it’s time to be more aggressive with enforcing mask mandates? There have been a mayors in the state have put a coalition together and asked that he pass or impose a statewide mask mandate. And the governor has basically just ignored the question and just not answered why he disagrees with it. But his actions clearly do disagree with it.

S5: Today, we’re talking about our plan for Florida’s recovery.

S1: It was more than a month ago, about five weeks back in June, Governor de Santos announced phase two of Florida’s reopening in most of the state. He said businesses could return as normal with only a few restrictions on capacity in places like movie theaters and bars, room occupancy.

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S5: So basically outdoor seating with social distance a certain amount indoors. We want to kind of not have huge crowds piling in.

S1: And so phase two, the Santa said he was making these decisions based on data, but the state didn’t make the basis of that data readily available to the public. That didn’t sit well with Mary Ellen. She started to compare what the governor was saying to the information she was getting.

S2: He was saying the state’s numbers were on the decline and that meant that it’s time to reopen the state. But in fact, the numbers were rising and literally the same week, just days before he’d set as the deadline for when he would decide whether or not to open the state is exactly when they started to see the numbers rise and the numbers were rising because it was exactly a couple of weeks after the Easter holiday and when people had gathered, and that’s when infections were starting to show again. So instead of telling the public that that’s what his numbers were showing, he said things are on the decline and he has since denied that that was is the case. He said, no, they were not on the rise. He has indicated that, you know, he they did everything that they that’s the CDC had recommended. And then he took aim at the media and and just vigorously blasted us and and basically said, you know, just wait. Florida has figured this out and we’ve we’ve got this under control. Now, he said that at the end of May and literally two weeks later, our summer surge started to climb and it didn’t decline until August.

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S1: One of the reasons that I think Florida has gotten a lot of attention for squirrelling is in its data is this analyst named Rebecca Jones, who used to work for the state and left in a very public fashion. And she’s been very outspoken about what she sees as flaws in how the state represents what’s happening in terms of covid numbers. She even started her own alternative dashboard to the state’s covid dashboard. Can you talk a little bit about Rebecca Jones and how important she has been to kind of understanding what’s happening?

S2: Rebecca Jones is an interesting. Character in this saga in Florida, because when the Johns Hopkins put together their initial covid dashboard template, she seized on that and put together Florida’s own dashboard and modeled it exactly after the Johns Hopkins dashboard, which many other organizations have done in states have done since then. And so her her dashboard really looked very efficient and effective and look like Florida was kind of doing the right thing and presenting information as we knew it. But at the same time that she was putting that together, she claims she was being told to either not present the all the information that they were getting or she claimed that that she was being told to change the data and downplay the severity of the virus.

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S1: When Rebecca Jones started her own covid dashboard, separate from the states like a competing website, how different was it? Was their information to get there that you couldn’t get from the state?

S2: Yes, so the interesting thing is that Florida Department of Health has a really good system of collecting data, and there are academics and and researchers who’ve been able to pull that data from the back end of the portal and synthesize it and present it in a way that’s meaningful. Now, that’s exactly what the state should be doing, but it’s not. So the data that she’s getting, like on hospital capacity and she started posting things like that on her website that the state was not putting out there, the state just chose not to present that. And that is to me, the biggest mistake they’ve made. And that’s all about their messaging. It doesn’t fit their messaging. If all of a sudden we were showing that some hospitals are now so close to reaching capacity that they’re having staffing problems and and that people have to, you know, be transferred to other hospitals, that doesn’t look like things are all under control. But that appears to be the message that the state always wanted to send.

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S1: Last week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raided Rebecca Jones home. Mr. Jones coming down the stairs. Now, Jones posted a short video of the raid to Twitter, said the cops pointed weapons at herself and her family. Please come down there for their children. The police say they were there because of a message that tracked to Jones’s I.P. address. It was sent to more than a thousand people on a statewide listserv, and it encouraged Department of Health employees to go public about how they felt about covid. It read, It’s time to speak up before another 17000 people are dead. You don’t have to be a part of this. Jones denies having anything to do with this note. She says if she had sent the message, she wouldn’t have rounded the number of deaths in Florida down. I wonder if you see what’s happened with Rebecca Jones as like a really important whistleblower moment or. A little bit like a distraction, because you think it’s important to focus the attention on what Rhonda Santos’s administration is getting wrong.

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S2: I think it’s really important to look at how they handled it and why they why they wanted to go after her. First of all, I think it’s pretty clear that they don’t really think that this message is the thing they’re most worried about. I think what they’re most worried about is that there may be other people who have either spoken with Rebecca Jones or are equally unhappy with the way the state’s handling this, that they might be on the verge of speaking out. And and maybe there’s somebody who may be a more credible source than she. I mean, that her allegations appear to be credible, but somebody else maybe who’s who worked there longer or who had more seniority if they were on the verge of coming forward. This approach, by sending four police officers with their guns drawn into her home in order to obtain all her computer equipment, her cell phones and try and silencer, does that have an intimidating effect?

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S3: And I think that there are a lot of employment lawyers we’ve talked to who definitely think that that was their goal here, is to just intimidate anyone else from coming forward when we come back.

S6: If Governor DeSantis is refusing to act on covid data, why?

S1: You’ve written really interestingly about how the governor is bolstering his decision making here or maybe his lack of decision making. Because he said from the beginning he wanted to be data driven. We’ve talked about how the data has been a little elusive, but he has relied on experts, just not the experts that others have relied on.

S2: Back in the last week of August, the governor decided to invite the president’s then White House adviser, Scott Atlus, who’s been very controversial. Right. Right. He invited him to come and talk about Florida’s approach. And it was such a fascinating dialogue because the governor would ask him questions like, do masks work? You know, doesn’t closing everything down, does that does that have any effect? And of course, Scott Atlas’s answer in most of the cases was, you know, there’s no evidence that widespread mass usage works. You know, it’s really important that we we keep our focus on the most vulnerable. And if we protect the most vulnerable, then we’re going to get out of this as soon as we have a vaccine without doing too much damage to commerce. So the governor then started to echo many of his statements.

S1: Then dissent has brought in more scientific firepower, specifically to professors behind the Great Barrington Declaration, which is a document expressing what they call grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing covid-19 policies. Instead of a lockdown, they recommend an approach they call focused protection.

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S2: The focus should be on just keeping people who are who are vulnerable or had preexisting conditions from having any exposure to the virus. And everybody else should just go about their business.

S1: And the argument here was that if you do that, the population will build up herd immunity. And and it was sponsored this work, this declaration by the American Institute for Economic Research. So you can sort of see like that’s not exactly the American Medical Association.

S2: That’s that’s right. And their idea of of herd immunity. One of the important details they just failed to talk about is that absent a vaccine, herd immunity is going to mean that thousands, six percent of the population has to be infected. And in Florida, that would mean that the 17000 lives that had already died by the point the governor put this panel together, would we need to see another three times as many people die? They just conveniently didn’t talk about that angle. And yet the governor embraced this approach and put a lot of attention and focus on protecting people in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

S1: I mean, you put forward in an article a few weeks back that Florida is basically an experiment to see what happens when you just pursue this herd immunity strategy, full force. And of course, a spokesman for Rhonda Sanders put it a little bit differently and said, you know, well, that’s not quite what we’re doing. But I do wonder a little bit when you look at the ways the administration is playing fast and loose with the numbers.

S2: Whether it prevents some kind of public reckoning with what DeSantis is doing, well, I do think when we wrote this story, it did generate a lot of discussion, synthesizing what the governor was doing. People were able to see that, yes, he’s promoting a strategy that he doesn’t have the tools to promote. And so it it does kind of lay bare the logic and the perhaps the failed logic of this approach. You know, I think the governor in many ways has this idea that everybody’s got to protect themselves and make their own decisions about whether they should be protected. I just don’t think he sees his role as one that is telling people how they should behave, recommending how people should behave. But what he does see, his role as is preventing government from telling people what’s safe.

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S1: Yeah. Why does he see? Government recommendations as something to be avoided rather than something that might actually be helpful for a jurisdiction like, I wonder if some mayors have gone to him and said, actually, we could use your guidance here.

S2: Yes. In fact, he’s he’s heard from a bipartisan group of mayors urging them, urging the governor to come out with, you know, a statewide strategy, a public health messaging strategy that told people, here’s what you need to do to be safe. And and he has just not seen that as his role at all, in fact, that the Department of Health has done very little broad public information messages. I mean, only reluctantly, after about three or four months in, did they start putting together a campaign together campaign to tell people how to be safe. And since then, that has really disappeared as well. His I think he sees government as an impediment to people and not a way to help people.

S1: One thing that’s clear listening to you is how much your governor’s behavior is sort of working hand in glove with the president’s behavior. And so I wonder how you think things might change, if at all, with a new administration in Washington?

S2: Well, I think we’re already seeing some of that, given the fact that the White House coronavirus task force is sending recommendations to Florida throughout the campaign and election season, they had not been able to release a lot of information in the last month and a half. They have been. And so I think that’s it. I think they feel as if they now have sort of license to move, move on with what they know should be said. And the president doesn’t seem to be as engaged in tamping down their messaging and the information they’re releasing. So it’s obviously not feeling inhibited by this current administration and it’s sending recommendations. And obviously the governor doesn’t want those made public. But I think there will be some changes and there’s going to be some conflicts, no doubt about it.

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S7: Marilyn Klaas, thank you so much for joining me. You’re welcome. Mary, I’ve appreciated you shining a light on Florida. Ellen Class is the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Miami Herald. Before we go, one last request. We’re opening up our listener callout line for one more time this year. And we’re doing it because we want to know how you are bidding farewell to 20/20. We need your ideas. You can get us at two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight. And that is the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Davis Land. We are getting a ton of help right now from Frannie Kelley. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.