Tampa Bay Times by Kathleen McGrory & Rebecca Woolington
April 29, 2020
State officials have stopped releasing the list of coronavirus deaths being compiled by Florida’s medical examiners, which has at times shown a higher death toll than the state’s published count.
The list had previously been released in real time by the state Medical Examiners Commission. But earlier this month, after the Tampa Bay Times reported that the medical examiners’ death count was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health, state officials said the list needed to be reviewed and possibly redacted.
They’ve now been withholding it for nine days, without providing any of the information or specifying what they plan to remove.
Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the state Medical Examiners Commission, said the change in policy came after the state health department intervened.
The medical examiners’ list does not include names. But it provides demographic information, probable cause of death and case summaries with information about each person’s medical and travel history.
Nelson — who is also the medical examiner for Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties — said state officials told him they plan to remove causes of death and case descriptions. Without that information, the list is meaningless, he said.
Nelson said he believes the entirety of the list is public information — a stance supported by Florida public records experts.
“This is no different than any other public record we deal with,” Nelson said. “It’s paid for by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers have a right to know.”
The health department acknowledged that it “participated in conference calls” with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which provides administrative support to the Medical Examiners Commission. The topic was “privacy concerns for the individuals that passed away related to COVID-19,” health department spokesman Alberto Moscoso said.