Data suggest Florida’s record-breaking coronavirus days may have been inflated by as much as 30%

Miami restaurant owners protest the city's order closing dining rooms, 7/10

Miami restaurant owners protest the city’s order closing dining rooms, 7/10 (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Florida health officials appear to have inflated recent record coronavirus case numbers there by as much as 30%, according to an analysis of data released by the state’s Department of Health.

U.S. health officials have been warning for several weeks that COVID-19 case trends in Florida are pointing to a possible looming catastrophe as the state records ever-increasing numbers of the disease. After several months of flat infection rates, positive case results in Florida began rising slowly in mid-June before beginning a steep climb near the end of the month.

Deaths in the state have remained largely flat over that time period, leaving experts struggling to explain why surging case rates have not resulted in an uptick in mortality. One possibility, according to data provided by the state itself, is that the new case numbers regularly posted by Florida health officials have been significantly inflated in recent weeks.

‘Chart date’ vs ‘event date’

At issue is how Florida quantifies its COVID-19 data. The state’s dashboard presents new cases in a relatively straightforward manner, presenting a bar chart that displays “new cases of residents by day.”

Yet the state’s wealth of coronavirus data is significantly more multifaceted than that. An ArcGIS data manager allows users to access detailed, cross-referential data readouts for all of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases, including the sex, age group, region and “origin” of each case, among numerous other metrics.

Two of those data options are “case date” and “event date.” The state in a Department of Health document defines the case date as the “date used to create bar chart in the Dashboard,” while the “event date” is defined as the “date symptoms started, or if that date is unknown, date lab results were reported to the DOH.”

That subtle distinction means that many cases posted to the dashboard may not meaningfully align with the date on which they were posted. Users may thus be misled into believing that case dates on the chart represent timely data, recent cases from which current trends may be reliably derived. However, charted case dates may in fact represent “events” — positive tests or illness-onset dates — that came weeks or even months before.

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