17 JUNE 2020


By Raul Elizalde

This article also appeared on forbes.com

Florida! The land of Pitbull, the hanging chads and the Florida Man has a new story to tell.

Rebekah Jones, a data scientist who ran the state’s Covid-19 data portal, was fired for “insubordination.” She counters that she was dismissed after pushing back on state officials’ attempts to fudge the data so they could justify a faster rollback of pandemic-related restrictions. Jones just launched a competing portal where she displays Covid-19 data with standards she believes are right.

Jones’ site looks very much like the state’s official site, but counts cases differently. Unlike Jones, the state does not include deaths of non-Florida residents who died while in Florida, for example. Also, the official site reports 25%-30% more tests than Jones’ site because the Florida Department of Health counts all samples taken as if they were tests, while Jones counts only the actual tests conducted on those samples.

State officials, unsurprisingly, claim that their numbers paint a more relevant picture of what is really going on. Either way, there is enough in the official site to raise concerns about the pandemic, even if the state in fact massaged the data to paint a rosier picture: Cases stopped falling when Florida began to reopen in early May, and then jumped as restrictions were rolled back further at the beginning of June.

source: USAFacts.org, covidtracking.com

source: Florida Department Of Health

The fact that more people are being tested does not seem to explain the increase. A larger proportion of tests are coming out positive, for example. And a handful of large Florida counties are seeing a significant increase in cases well in excess of the number of additional tests: Dade (Miami), Broward (Ft. Lauderdale), Palm Beach (Palm Beach), Hillsborough (Tampa), Orange (Orlando), Collier (Naples), Pinellas (St. Petersburg), and Lee (Ft. Myers) among others.

source: Path Financial LLC

source: Path Financial LLC

Florida is not alone in reporting a growing rate of infection. Arizona, California, Texas, North Carolina and Utah, which together with Florida account to 40% of U.S. GDP, are showing similar spikes as the states attempt to restart business activity.

The very good news, however, is that unlike infections, deaths related to Covid-19 remain stable. Why this is so is not clear, but it may be due to a better understanding of the disease and better treatments. A more negative interpretation would be that there is a lag between falling ill and dying. This does not seem to be the case, and at any rate it won’t be long until we know for sure.

Driving down Covid-19-related fatalities could be a major breakthrough. The flu, for example, infects about 35 million people in the U.S. each year, but only about 35,000 die from it. This is why eradicating the flu is desirable but not a pressing matter. If Covid-19 could be treated in a way that killed just 0.1% of the infected and rarely required hospitalization, it would cease to be the public health crisis that is causing so much pain worldwide.

source: Path Financial LLC

For now, experts insist on containing the spread of the virus with methods that are neither expensive nor difficult – wearing masks, distancing, avoiding large groups and washing hands often. Simple steps, indeed, to keep the numbers down and prevent the optimism that fueled the 40% stock rally since March from evaporating.

Given how expensive and difficult it has been to pass massive packages of government help to offset some of the economic pain, not having to shut down businesses again is a goal everyone should embrace by doing their part.

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