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Media claim study shows that Florida undercounted COVID deaths by thousands. Here's what the study actually says.
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Media claim study shows that Florida undercounted COVID deaths by thousands. Here's what the study actually says.

Surprise: Many reporters can't read

In their never-ending quest to discredit Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is widely considered to be one of the front-runners for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, the media have attempted to paint DeSantis' handling of the coronavirus pandemic as incompetent and reckless. There's only one problem: By any objective measure, Florida has performed better than states (like New York and California) whose governors have been widely praised for their handling of COVID-19, even though Florida has a more vulnerable population.

Accordingly, the Democrats' allies in the media have seized upon a study published in the American Journal of Public Health that they claim shows that Florida has been undercounting COVID deaths. Yahoo News, which first publicized the study widely, originally claimed that the study showed that "4,924 excess deaths should have been counted as resulting from COVID-19 but for the most part were ruled as having been caused by something else, thus lowering Florida's coronavirus fatality count."

A number of local publications misrepresented the story even worse. Orlando Weekly originally claimed that the study showed that 19,000 COVID deaths were underreported. The outlet later issued a correction that said, "The number of deaths that researchers believe weren't included in the official tally is 4,924." This is closer to the truth, but also not what the study said. One especially illiterate Florida publication originally claimed the same 19,000 figure, but then "corrected" the story to say "The actual figure is 14,000." This story and its completely erroneous headline were likewise shared by a prominent liberal tweeter who either did not bother to read the story or was unable to understand it, and the tweet went viral, garnering over 1,000 retweets and 3,000 likes.

I downloaded the actual study and read it, and here is what it says.

The number one thing to note is that it certainly does not say or even suggest that Florida underreported COVID deaths by 19,000 or 14,000. The folks making this claim either haven't bothered to read the study or have extremely poor reading comprehension. The study suggests, based on statistical modeling, that in a given period of 2020, Florida experienced 19,241 more deaths than would have been expected in that time period. Florida reported an official tally of 14,317 COVID-19 deaths during that time period. Therefore, according to the researchers, there are 4,924 extra deaths in Florida that cannot be accounted for.

Yes, incredibly, publications somehow took the actual reported figure of COVID deaths from the study time period and claimed that the study said that those deaths were underreported. Somehow, they came to this position even after someone clearly pointed out that they were misreading the study. To the extent that the study suggests anything nefarious at all, it pertains only to the 4,924 deaths that the researchers believe happened. One wonders whether the Twitter and Facebook pages of the outlets that shared these clearly erroneous stories will be suspended or condemned to oblivion with "fact checks" that diminish their reach.

And here's where it gets sticky. The study's lead author, Moosa Tatar, Ph.D., told The Hill, "I am sure that COVID-19 is responsible for most of these excess deaths." Dr. Tatar is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but the study he co-authored expressly disclaims any ability to know this information. As the study notes, there has been "speculation on whether deaths from non–COVID-19 causes have decreased or increased during the pandemic. It has been reported that deaths from unintentional injury decreased as a result of lockdown measures, but deaths from chronic disease, drug overdoses, and suicides have increased."

Ultimately, all such analysis thus far is speculation, and the authors do not attempt to quantify whether the 4,924 excess deaths they purportedly found are due to these causes or to COVID. Which is why, right in the text of the study, the authors state, "We are unable to stratify excess deaths by cause in our data." In other words, the study itself admits that it is not able to quantify how many of these excess deaths, if any, were due to COVID-19 or other causes. The study certainly did not claim, as Yahoo News stated, that "4,924 excess deaths should have been counted as resulting from COVID-19[.]" It claims that there were 4,924 excess deaths, states frankly that the authors were not able to determine what the cause of these deaths were, and concludes with a statement by the authors that "the mortality burden of COVID-19 is significantly higher than what the official tally suggests," even though the authors just admitted that they are "unable to stratify excess deaths by cause in our data."

I attempted to contact Dr. Tatar to ask him to explain why he told The Hill that he is "sure that COVID-19 is responsible for most of these excess deaths," when his study expressly disclaimed any ability to determine what was responsible for any of these deaths (if we grant that they exist), and he did not respond. However, a potential answer can be found from Dr. Tatar's admission that Florida was specifically chosen for this analysis due to Gov. DeSantis' choice to lift COVID restrictions early.

In other words, the researchers assumed from the beginning that DeSantis' actions should have killed people and were looking for confirmation of their own beliefs. It is not surprising to find them claiming to the media that they found it, even if their actual published data does not support that conclusion. Academics are as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone else.

Finally, it should of course be noted that the study itself and its methodology have been widely criticized and debunked by sources that are definitely not inclined to be charitable to Gov. DeSantis and his approach, including the CDC and the Washington Post, which have pointed out that Florida's excess death totals are neither unusual nor out of line with other states during the pandemic; in other words, if Florida undercounted COVID deaths, so did California, New York, and the other states to which Florida is frequently compared. In fact, the Washington Post concedes that Florida's published COVID death total runs much closer to the CDC's excess death total than New York's, suggesting that, if anything, Florida did a more conscientious job of reporting COVID death totals than New York, where Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo spent the most of the last year being feted by the press for his handling of the pandemic.

As the Post notes, this exercise could have been done with any number of states and the same result would have been reproduced. The researchers chose Florida because of a stated agenda. Now their research is being used to support a proposition that it does not prove.

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