UPDATE: The CDC map was updated with new Florida data on Thursday, making a big shift for the state. Read more and view the updated data here. The original story follows:
A federal map shows Florida having COVID-19 transmission rates lower than all other 49 states. But even though many are touting it as good news and proof that Florida’s pandemic policies are working, the map is misleading.
Data that shows community transmission levels by county have not been updated for the state of Florida on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention portal since Thanksgiving. The resulting map shows a sunny picture of COVID in Florida, the only state with a low transmission rate.
But without new case numbers being updated since Nov. 25, the seven-day average for Florida is skewed downward while much of the rest of the country is red, illustrating high COVID transmission rates.
In reality, on the day new cases were last reported in Florida, a prior version of the CDC map showed moderate transmission in most of Florida, and substantial transmission in about a dozen counties — far more in line with the rest of the nation.
A review by the South Florida Sun Sentinel of the data behind the CDC’s map shows zero cases reported per capita in every county in Florida since Nov. 25, a consistent gap not seen in any other state in the U.S.
As of Nov. 30, just 193 counties throughout the country have “low” community transmission levels, with 64 of them — more than a third — in Florida because they are missing cases-per-capita data for five days.
Meanwhile, the latest version of the CDC map has been making its way around Twitter and Facebook in dozens of posts that tout Florida “hitting bottom,” and doing better than other states, just as people are making travel plans to visit.
Many of them are emboldened by how the map appears credible, given that they “pulled” it from the CDC website.
The map also was included in a Twitter post by Christina Pushaw, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, along with an article about COVID cases bottoming out in Florida.
Whether Florida actually does have the lowest transmission level in the country is unclear and likely won’t be known until the CDC updates the map later this week.
In response, Pushaw said Tuesday “the CDC map that I Tweeted is accurate, and Florida is the only state with mostly “blue” (low community transmission) counties. Florida has been reporting COVID data to the CDC as usual...Currently, if you look at the CDC dataset, you will see Florida counties reported data to the CDC on November 29, as well as November 28. This is standard.
“Florida still has the lowest case rate per 100,000 in the entire country and this continues to decrease,” Pushaw said in a written statement.
Weesman Koury, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, also asserted that Florida has one of the lowest case rates in the nation “as a result of our innovative and strategic COVID-19 response that focuses on prevention and treatment.”
Florida data indeed shows that Florida has the lowest cases per capita than any other state — six per 100,000 as of Nov. 30. A current New York Times COVID map shows most of the Southeast, including Florida, has lower rates than other parts of the country. Public health experts say Florida and neighboring southern states are receding from the delta surge now hitting states to the north and west.
Other CDC data portals update COVID statistics for Florida daily. New COVID cases in Florida have been dropping throughout November in the wake of a devastating summer surge.
The Florida Department of Health reported 10,828 new cases for the week of Nov. 18, a big improvement from August when the count reached as high as 151,675 new cases in a week. Florida’s rebound comes after the state has reported more than 61,000 COVID deaths.
“The delta wave is like the wind. It came from the south, hit Florida, and now it’s hitting other states to the north and eventually their case levels will come down, too,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, who works on global COVID-19 data predictions. “What we are looking at in Florida is not a success story. It’s a failure. We saw a lot of mortality. The fact that it hit Florida earlier and is now coming down is because it ran out of people to infect.”
Dr. Thomas Hladish, a research scientist in the Department of Biology and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, said other factors play a role in Florida’s lower transmission rate, too. “This is also the time of year where transmission in Florida is low. I don’t think we have a truly rigorous scientific understanding of COVID seasonality.”
The CDC uses two factors to determine levels of community transmission: The number of cases per 100,000 population and the testing positivity rate. As of Nov. 30, three of Florida’s 67 counties showed no cases per capita on the CDC portal but positivity rates over 5%, pushing them into the “moderate” transmission level.
Models indicate Florida may see a “swell” of new cases in January but not a second delta wave, Hladish said.
“There is too much immunity in the population right now to drive that,” he said.
The wild card is the new variant omicron, which may have the ability to reinfect those who are recovered from COVID. Hladish said a COVID wave in Florida due to omicron is entirely possible.
Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.