The rate of daily coronavirus deaths reported by the state of Florida has begun to tick up again for the first time since May, a trend that was apparent even before Thursday’s announcement of a record 120 COVID deaths, following weeks of rising hospitalizations.
Public health experts and coronavirus data researchers say it’s still too early to tell just how bad the rise in deaths will get. But the increase was predictable, said Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego.
“Florida is running away with new cases, so you’d expect this to happen,” Topol said. “There are the denialists who say these people are younger … and all these theories, but if [the rise in deaths] didn’t happen, you’d start to wonder what’s going on regarding how the deaths are being tallied.”
Volunteer data researchers at The COVID Tracking Project, which is analyzing national coronavirus data during the pandemic, have tracked Florida’s rise in coronavirus deaths using rolling averages to smooth out the spikes and valleys that come with the inconsistent reporting of deaths by the state health department. They said the upswing became apparent this week.
“It’s definitely trending up,” said Olivier Lacan, an Orlando-based volunteer researcher for the tracking project. Each day, Lacan calculates the daily average of newly reported deaths for the previous seven days to analyze the trend line.
Florida COVID-19 update on 7/9 for 7/8: 120 new deaths (all-time highest), 8,935 new positives, 37,247 new people tested, 411 new hospitalizations (all-time highest). Positivity at 18.39% state-wide.
This is very bad. 7-day rolling death average is close to 5/7. pic.twitter.com/8tpk6ant1s
— Olivier Lacan (@olivierlacan) July 9, 2020
Public health experts agree that deaths are a “lagging indicator” of infections, usually trailing new cases by several weeks to a month. In Florida, the deaths announced on a given day could be from several days earlier because the state information does not include the exact date of death.
This week, the rise in deaths has started to match the death rate of early May, when lockdown orders were still in place.
Florida’s official statistics also only include deaths that are confirmed to be attributed to COVID-19, not cases that were probably caused by the virus — a statistic that some other states report — according to the COVID Tracking Project, which criticized that policy, along with other data quirks, in a blog post on Wednesday.
The lag time and opaque reporting of the numbers make deaths a difficult metric to accurately analyze, Lacan said. But the rolling averages — considered by many public health experts as the best way to look at the information — have started to go back up after weeks of rising hospitalizations, which are a “leading indicator,” or an early warning of increased spread.
“The trailing one is going red and the early one is also going red,” Lacan said. “It’s not good on either end.”
The rise in daily announced deaths is not solely in Florida. Arizona and Texas, two other states that have seen resurgences of newly confirmed cases around the same time Florida started to spike, are also experiencing rising daily deaths.
There’s been a lot of discussions about deaths continuing to trend down as cases have surged. This chart provides a partial answer to what’s been happening. The falling numbers in the NE were offsetting rising deaths in AZ, TX, FL. pic.twitter.com/hmZkhZXTPS
— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) July 8, 2020
Even amid a surge that has captured the country’s attention, Florida’s governor has yet to start releasing COVID-19 hospitalization numbers statewide, though a spokesperon for Gov. Ron DeSantis said last week that the state would start doing so. Miami-Dade County releases those figures daily.
Topol, the Scripps researcher, called the lack of information “absolutely deplorable,” adding that the “sad part about Florida is they’re the only state [experiencing a surge] that doesn’t share current hospitalization data.” He expressed some cautious optimism that the surge in deaths nationwide would not be as sharp as the one the country endured during April.
“We have a younger group of people and hopefully their survival will be somewhat better, but there’s no question we’ll see an increase in deaths,” Topol said. “It just may not have the same sharp slope we’ve seen in previous months.”