Miami Herald by Daniel Chang and Ben Conarck
April 7, 2020
Flu season normally winds down in Florida as March turns to April. This year was no exception — but with an alarming anomaly. While positive flu tests declined as expected, hospital emergency rooms simultaneously reported a spike in patients complaining of flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough and sore throat.
But in late March, as state officials struggled to expand testing for the novel coronavirus, the Florida Department of Health quietly decided to stop posting the data on patients with flu-like symptoms in its weekly surveillance reports — a move that experts told the Miami Herald could obscure the pandemic’s true impact on the state.
Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he didn’t know what motivated the decision, but the end result is that a strong indicator of possible COVID-19 patients is no longer captured in the data public health experts nationwide depend on to help guide their battle to stem the pandemic.
“If you don’t look for something, you can’t see it,” Lipsitch said.
Florida’s decision to stop reporting the data publicly also stands in contrast to federal policy to monitor the number of people with flu-like illnesses as a potential COVID-19 indicator — information experts stress is especially important in the absence of widespread and readily available testing. A map produced for a weekly report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, shows Florida in the “minimal risk” category for flu-like symptoms — that, despite ranking sixth in the nation for confirmed COVID-19 cases.