Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office on Wednesday evening released two White House Coronavirus Task Force reports that are more than a month old, nearly a week after the Orlando Sentinel filed a lawsuit to obtain all the weekly reports going back to Nov. 1.
The Sentinel’s lawsuit, however, is not resolved, as the state has not yet agreed to release all former reports and future reports in a timely manner. The parties have a hearing set for Monday. The South Florida Sun Sentinel is planning to join the complaint.
“The state sent us a few of the reports we requested several weeks ago, but not all of them,” said Julie Anderson, editor in chief of the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel. “We look forward to our court hearing, where we will make the case that these health reports have crucial information of great public interest and should always be released within a day of the state receiving it.”
The Orlando Sentinel filed the lawsuit on Dec. 11, after the governor’s office failed to provide any of the White House task force reports for the month of November.
The reports released on Wednesday were from Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
“No public records law exemption exists that would prevent the inspection or copying of the weekly reports requested by [the Sentinel],” said the lawsuit. The “delay in providing the requested reports is unreasonable, unjustified and amounts to an unlawful refusal to provide the records. The public is entitled to timely access of these reports going forward.”
The reports are produced by a 26-member task force, which was formed in January and is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. Dr. Deborah Birx serves as its response coordinator.
They are sent to all state governors every week and include critical information about trends in the spread of the virus, positivity rates and deaths in all counties and list recommendations for each state to contain the virus.
The White House has indicated these reports should be “widely” shared, including with the media, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Leon County circuit court.
Some states, including Oklahoma, share their weekly reports online. The Center for Public Integrity has been collecting the reports from around the country, amassing a collection that shows many states are sharing the reports.
The Orlando Sentinel began asking for the reports on Oct. 16, requesting the report for the prior week. DeSantis’ office produced the report five days later after the Sentinel involved its attorneys.
The office also provided the reports for Oct. 18 and 25, again with coaxing from the attorneys.
But until Wednesday, the state had not provided any of the reports for the month of November, despite the Orlando Sentinel’s weekly requests. The newspaper has been obtaining the report from third-party sources and the Center for Public Integrity.
The Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 reports show the gradual spread of the virus across the state in the past month. In those two weeks, Florida was in the yellow zone for test positivity with a rate of between 5% and 8%. As of Dec. 6, the state had moved in the red zone with a positivity rate at or above 10%.
At the time, about two-thirds of the counties had high or moderate levels of community transmission. As of Dec. 6, 99% reported high or moderate levels.
The reports have continued to stress the importance of mitigation efforts, including masks, physical distancing and hand washing, messages that have been largely absent from state officials.
“Florida must expand mitigation in the counties with rising cases and hospitalizations,” said the Nov. 1 report.
There have been recent hints that DeSantis might be looking at the White House task force reports, although he has never referred to them by name.
“Right now, there’s probably 40 states that have higher per capita cases and COVID hospitalizations per capita than the state of Florida does,” he said during a press conference on Tuesday at a steakhouse in West Palm Beach. “Some of these are shutting down, not letting them work, restricted, it just hasn’t worked very well.”
What DeSantis didn’t say is that even though Florida ranked 41st in cases per capita, according to Dec. 6 task force report, it continues to be in the red zone. In fact, all states but Hawaii were in the red zone by the first week of December. Florida is also in the red zone in positivity rate, light red for deaths and orange for COVID-19 hospital admissions per capita. The state has not managed to pull itself into the yellow zone in any category since November.