McClatchy DC by Kevin G. Hall and Shirsho Dasgupta
May 21, 2020
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released new data Thursday on Floridians who have died from COVID-19. And as has been its custom, the state didn’t provide the names of the dead.
But one prominent medical examiner refused to go along.
Stephen Nelson, medical examiner for Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties as well as chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission, did his own records release for his own counties, and it includes what the state left out: names of those who have succumbed to the disease.
“It IS all public information,” said Nelson, responding by email to a question from the Miami Herald.
In emergencies like the current one, the FDLE becomes a clearing house for medical examiner information. The position it has taken is that the names of the dead are not public, despite the state’s robust public records law and individual medical examiners’ routine practice of releasing autopsy reports upon request.
Nelson’s release of the names drew a sharp contrast with the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, which has released some information only after being pressured or sued by the news media.
The Miami Herald and a consortium of other news organization hired a law firm, Thomas & LoCicero, to press the state to release certain records, including the FDLE data. The news organizations had to file suit to force the release of testing results and death data at individual nursing homes and adult living facilities.
Advocacy groups say the information belongs in the public domain as the nation wrestles with a deadly pandemic.