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DeSantis’ health officials to disclose withheld Florida COVID data in settlement

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Department of Health has agreed to release withheld detailed COVID-19 data as part of a settlement reached with the Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) and former Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. The announcement was made on Monday, bringing an end to a two-year legal battle over stopping the information on the virus’ spread online.

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Under the terms of the settlement, the Florida Department of Health is obligated to publish comprehensive COVID-19 data on its website for the next three years. Additionally, the state must pay $152,250 to cover legal fees, as stated in the FLCGA news release.

The roots of this legal battle trace back to July 2021 when Smith, while serving on the Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee, submitted a public records request for COVID-19 data specific to Orange County. This request came shortly after the Florida Department of Health discontinued its practice of releasing daily online COVID-19 reports, which provided detailed information for each county.

During this period, Florida faced the onslaught of the Delta COVID-19 variant, leading the nation in cases per capita and pediatric hospitalizations. The state’s leadership, including newly appointed Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis, maintained a stance of keeping schools and businesses open while downplaying the effectiveness of precautions like masking and vaccinations.

The Florida Department of Health initially denied Smith’s request, citing the confidentiality of the information he sought, including data related to ages, sex, ethnic and racial demographics of confirmed cases, and vaccination rates for the county. FLCGA subsequently filed similar records requests for all 67 counties in the state, all of which were denied on the same grounds.

In August 2021, FLCGA and Smith filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health over the refusal to release public records. Several news outlets and First Amendment advocacy organizations offered their support by signing a motion in favor of the lawsuit.

Throughout the two years of legal proceedings, the medical community criticized the state’s handling of the pandemic, particularly the decision to recommend COVID-19 boosters only for those aged 65 and older. The Florida Department of Health consistently claimed that the records sought by FLCGA did not exist.

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However, in March 2023, they were compelled to release the records following an appellate court order.

”A review of those records by FLCGA indicated the Department circulated detailed COVID-19 data on a daily basis despite telling a judge that such records did not exist,” FLCGA stated in a news release.

Following the release of the records, FLCGA and Smith deemed them sufficient to fulfill the July 2021 records requests, leading to the settlement. Notably, Ladapo and the Florida Department of Health did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

Rep. Smith remarked, “The Department lied about the existence of these public records in court and did everything to restrict information and downplay the threat of COVID even while the Delta variant ripped through Florida—a decision that cost many lives.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the Florida Department of Health is obligated to publish detailed COVID-19 data on its website weekly for the next three years. FLCGA has pledged to monitor the health department to ensure compliance with the agreement.

At the time of this story, the most recent two-week report from the Florida Department of Health indicates that over 91,000 Floridians have died from COVID-19, with over 7.8 million reported cases in the state.

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William Clayton

William Clayton, Action News Jax

Digital reporter and content creator for Action News Jax

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