Public records lawsuit targets state of Florida over COVID-19 data

A Democratic state lawmaker and a non-profit group have filed a lawsuit alleging the Florida Department of Health has violated public-records laws by refusing to provide detailed data about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, and the Florida Center for Government Accountability filed the lawsuit late Monday in Leon County circuit court, after the department rebuffed requests for information.

The state until early June posted on its website daily reports that provided extensive data about issues such as cases and deaths, with information also broken down by county. But Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration halted the daily reports in June and shifted to posting weekly information that is far less detailed.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Health and Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, the department’s secretary, have violated public-records laws at a time when the delta variant of the coronavirus has caused cases, hospitalizations and deaths to surge in Florida.

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"Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and its ‘continuing threat’ to Floridians, records revealing information about its impact, prevalence and fatality is of obvious public importance," the lawsuit said. "Floridians have an immediate need for access to information about the virus and its impact and spread in particular communities. This information is vital to the ability of citizens to understand the risks and make informed decisions about their lives. The purpose of this action is to obtain critical records that the department previously published daily on its website so that the public will have knowledge of and the ability to scrutinize their government’s response to the rampaging virus. This is the paramount goal of open government laws."

Smith submitted a written request July 23 to the Orange County Health Department for daily information about COVID-19 cases, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.

Drew Love, legislative director for the Florida Department of Health, responded Aug. 9 and said the information Smith had requested was "considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure" under a state law and state rules, according to an email from Love included in the lawsuit.

The Tallahassee-based Florida Center for Government Accountability, which focuses on enforcing public-records laws, filed a request Aug. 16 with the Department of Health seeking daily COVID-19 data between July 9 and Aug. 15 for each county in the state. It requested daily case counts and positivity rates and information about hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations.

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Kendra Washington, a public records manager in the Department of Health’s Office of General Counsel, responded Aug. 20 and said the requested information was "considered confidential and exempt from public disclosure" under state law and rules, according to an email from Washington included in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit disputed that the requested records are exempt from public release. The records do not include information identifying individual patients.

"The department previously released and published on a daily basis the very information sought by plaintiffs," the lawsuit said. "Additionally, the department and governor have recognized that the need for the public to be informed about the virus’ spread is critical to ensuring public confidence in COVID-19 mitigation strategies."

Some daily information about Florida, including case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations, are posted online by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But that information does not provide the same detailed data that the Florida Department of Health provided before scaling back to weekly reports.

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In June, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw told The News Service of Florida that there wasn’t a need to continue publishing daily reports. At the time, Florida had seen a decline in cases, with the delta-fueled surge hitting the state in July.

"COVID-19 cases have significantly decreased over the past year as we have a less than 5% positivity rate, and our state is returning to normal, with vaccines widely available throughout Florida," Pushaw said in a June email.