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Florida’s COVID-19 deaths are still among the highest in the nation

Becky Hunter, RN, tends to one of her COVID patients on ICU Unit 82 at UF Health in Gainesville.
Becky Hunter, RN, tends to one of her COVID patients on ICU Unit 82 at UF Health in Gainesville.

Although Florida has reported lower COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past few weeks, the state’s death rate is still among the highest in the nation.

An analysis from the New York Times finds that the number of COVID-19 deaths in Florida per 100,000 is the third highest in the country over the past seven days. And the state’s daily death average of 239.7 is higher than any other state.

Democratic Senator Janet Cruz questioned a representative from the Florida Department of Health on Wednesday about the state’s priorities when it comes to COVID-19 during a committee hearing in Tallahassee.

“As a state, are we playing a squid game here, where only the strong survive, where we're working toward herd immunity, rather than try to save as many lives as possible?” Cruz said. “It seems like we're trying to save as many businesses as possible. So has there been much conversation about herd immunity and just letting the strong survive here?”

Melissa Jordan, division director for community health promotion at the Florida Department of Health, had just finished briefing the Senate Committee on Health Policy about improvements to the state’s COVID-19 numbers.

She responded to Cruz by saying that when comparing states, it’s important to look at age-adjusted death rates, which control for differences in a population’s age distribution. When looking at all COVID-19 deaths in the state, the age-adjusted mortality rate per 100,000 has Florida ranked 24th in the nation. The New York Times analysis places Florida’s overall death rate as the 10th highest in the nation.

“So, unfortunately, we have lost lives in Florida due to COVID-19,” Jordan said. “But … our age-adjusted mortality rates are lower than the national mortality rates and lower than many of the other states that have implemented stricter business closures and other mitigation strategies.”

She said the state has other mitigation strategies if coronavirus cases start rising, and emphasized that business closures are just one potential strategy that might be considered.

The state has reported 3.6 million cases and 56,667 deaths since March 1, 2020. Its overall case mortality rate is 1.6%.

The pandemic has also shown disparities in the number of cases and deaths reported by race and ethnicity. The rate of positive cases per 100,000 residents is higher among Blacks than among whites.

The same pattern was observed among Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents, Jordan said during the meeting. However, the data is limited because race data was not reported for 13 percent of Florida’s coronavirus cases and ethnicity data was missing from 16 percent of the cases.

But when it comes to race, the picture in Florida is better than in other parts of the country, Jordan said.

“Nationally, it’s been reported that the COVID-19 mortality rate among individuals who report their race as Black is twice as high as those who report their race as white,” Jordan said. “This large disparity has not been observed in Florida.”

Throughout September, the state’s seven-day average case trend decreased by 73% from an average of 19,921 cases reported Sept. 1 to an average of 5,407 cases reported by the end of the month. Jordan said the lower cases have directly impacted the state’s total hospitalizations and deaths.

As of Oct. 7, more than 13.7 million, or 72% of Florida residents, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 63% are fully vaccinated. Nearly 90% of individuals 65 and older have received the vaccine – the highest rate among age groups in the state.

While the vaccination efforts started later for people between 12 and 19 years old, about 55% — or 1.8 million — young people have been vaccinated as of Oct. 7. That compares to a vaccination rate of 53% among people between the ages of 20 and 29.

And in nursing homes, AARP also reported that 12 percent, or roughly 85, of Florida’s nearly 700 nursing homes had “met the industry standard and vaccinated at least 75 percent of their staff.”

The AARP study showed Florida led the nation in the rate of nursing-home deaths during a four-week period that ended Sept. 19. The report, which relies on federal data, said Florida nursing homes reported 289 resident deaths from COVID-19 during the period. They represented nearly 14 percent of 2,131 COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes across the nation.

“The state of Florida continues to support and ensure adequate vaccine supply — including additional doses — are widely available,” Jordan said.

The state’s vaccine outreach includes communication on TV, radio, social media, billboards and print ads, Jordan said.

“The department uses data to determine priority counties to focus ads developed for populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, specifically persons ages 65 and older, minority populations and rural populations,” Jordan said.

“The department developed a toolkit featuring materials that can be used for promotional efforts related to COVID-19 vaccines and disseminated this toolkit to state agencies and other partners in addition to encouraging vaccinations to prevent severe illness.”

Senators at the committee hearing also questioned why the state is only reporting COVID-19 case and death data once a week. Jordan said the department decided to make the change as daily reports could be considered “misleading.”

“I know the availability of data has been of great interest to Floridians and our partners throughout this response,” Jordan said. “I will certainly take that discussion topic back to the department.

“As cases continue to downtrend, producing a weekly report seems to be somewhat sufficient.”

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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