Nearly 1,900 people in six Central Florida counties died of COVID-19 since the Florida Department of Health stopped publishing county-by-county data in early June, a new White House report shows, revealing for the first time the detailed impact of the highly infectious delta variant that arrived with the start of summer.
The deaths in Orange, Seminole, Lake, Osceola, Brevard and Volusia counties account for nearly a sixth of the 11,799 deaths statewide between June 5 and Sept. 12 — an average of more than 119 lives lost each day.
While health officials in Orange County have continued to make public its COVID-19 cases, deaths and other metrics, many other counties and the state as a whole have not. The state discontinued detailed daily reports on June 5, switching to weekly reports that no longer included information on the race, gender, age and county of those infected and dying. Until now, federal websites reflected incomplete death information for Florida’s counties as well.
A spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at the time the information was no longer vital as case counts dropped and vaccination rates rose over the spring. But just as many Floridians began to return to a pre-pandemic normalcy — gathering in crowds without masks — the delta variant began its rapid spread across the state, bringing some of the highest hospitalization rates and death tolls since the pandemic began.
Of Central Florida counties, Brevard had the biggest summer increase — and highest rate of increase — with 532 cases. Orange had 453 more deaths, but because it has a larger population than surrounding counties, it had the lowest rate of additional deaths in Central Florida. Lake had 289 additional deaths, Volusia had 250, Seminole had 197 and Osceola had 176.
Late last month, State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and the Florida Center for Government Accountability filed a lawsuit against the FDOH for not providing detailed, daily COVID-19 statistics. Smith reacted Tuesday to the newly released data on Twitter. ”Well, well, well. After withholding detailed COVID death data for months, #DeSantis suddenly releases the info after WE SUED THEM. Coincidence? Why not release all remaining data + resume daily dashboard reporting before Monday’s pre-trial hearing?” he wrote.
However, it’s not yet clear why the information was released nor whether it will continue to be made public each week.
Weesam Khoury, communications director for the Florida Department of Health, blamed the lack of information on a “display issue” with the data made public by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although there’s no question that the state stopped issuing its detailed COVID-19 daily reports directly to the public, Khoury said the state has continually provided that information — including the number of deaths for each county — to the CDC.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.
Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, said he was shocked to see the numbers finally update on the latest White House report. But he also cautioned that some of the newest county data — that from Sept. 6 to Sept. 12 — should be interpreted with caution, given a large discrepancy between the 260 total deaths reported by the state and the sum of nearly 2,500 deaths obtained by adding up the counties.
”There’s clearly a disconnect between what that data element means on the county tab, and what it means on the state tab,” he said. “The difference should not be as dramatic as I’m seeing with the deaths.”
Texas recently overtook Florida in the number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths, surpassing Florida for two consecutive weeks, the latest report shows.
Although Florida fatalities from the virus plummeted 76% last week compared to a week earlier, the White House COVID-19 Team reports the state continues to have a high level of community transmission. The CDC recommends all residents, including those who are vaccinated, wear masks in indoor public spaces.