'I'm looking for the truth': States face criticism for COVID-19 data cover-ups

The public must be given complete and accurate information about the coronavirus pandemic, experts said.
COVID-19 Testing Begins in Historic Black Neighborhoods in Altamonte Springs, US
Health workers test people in cars for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site at the Apostolic Church of Christ in Altamonte Springs, Florida, on April 21, 2020.Paul Hennessy / Barcroft Media via Getty Images file

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By Allan Smith

As states ramp up their reopenings, some are coming under criticism for making public misleading statistics or concealing information related to the coronavirus outbreak.

While the U.S. has reported more cases and deaths than any other country, the method for counting COVID-19 deaths varies by state. In testimony before the Senate earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said the actual number of people who've died as a result of the pandemic is "almost certainly" higher than what's been counted.

Such data has been the basis for how quickly states are beginning to open up and return to a sense of normalcy. But government officials in a number of states are facing questions about how open and honest they're being about how the virus is impacting their state.

"Accurate, complete and timely information is the best way to understand, respond to and limit the impact of the virus on both health and the economy," Dr. Tom Frieden, who ran the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Barack Obama, told NBC News.

"This helps to set realistic expectations on how the pandemic will affect people's lives and to inform required changes in behavior to prevent the spread of the virus," he added.

Georgia officials have apologized and corrected what was described as a "processing error" that wrongly showed a downward trend in the number of new daily infections in the state, making it appear as if new infections had dropped every day for two weeks. The error was at least the third in three weeks, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Georgia was among the first states to launch its reopening. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said the state on Tuesday recorded its lowest number of hospitalized patients since it began tracking such data in early April.

In the neighboring state of Florida, which has also moved expeditiously in reopening swathes of its economy, several data-related controversies also have brewed.

According to internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, state officials directed a top Florida Department of Health data manager earlier this month to remove data from public view that showed Florida residents had reported coronavirus-associated symptoms before cases were officially announced. The emails showed that the data manager, Rebekah Jones, had complied with the order but said it was the "wrong call."

Jones was taken off her role maintaining the state's coronavirus dashboard one day after that directive. She told a local CBS affiliate that she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen" Florida. Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said Jones was under "active criminal charges" for cyber stalking and cyber sexual harassment.

Meanwhile, Florida officials last month stopped releasing the list of coronavirus deaths being compiled by the state's medical examiners, which had at times shown a higher death toll than the total being published by the state. State officials said that list needed to be reviewed as a result of the discrepancy.

A spokesman for the state Health Department said the medical examiners had a different method for reporting deaths and that it was untrue "that deaths have been hidden."

"The government has one mission; academics and scholars have a very different mission," Dr. Dean Hart, an expert on viral transmission and former Columbia University professor who has run for the New York State Assembly as a Democrat, told NBC News.

"As a scientist, I'm looking for the truth, the heck with who it hurts politically," he added.

Amid reopening in Arizona, the state Department of Health Services cut off a team of Arizona State and University of Arizona experts who provided pandemic modeling specific to the state, saying it was no longer needed as the state preferred to use a federal model. After a backlash, the Health Department reinstated the team, though it's unclear whether state officials are using the local universities' work in their decision-making.

Since that dust up, Arizona State released new data showing infections and hospitalizations in the state could soar this summer.

The CDC and at least 11 other states have been combining the results of viral tests showing active infections with the results of antibody tests, which show whether someone had been infected in the past.While boosting a state's total testing number, health experts have said that practice does not give a proper picture of how the virus is spreading, the Associated Press reported.

The CDC announced it planned to separate the data and some of those states have stopped doing so or committed to change course, CNN reported.

In New York City, the hardest-hit locale in the nation, local officials last week released COVID-19 data broken down by zip code after pressure to go beyond the county-by-county totals that had previously been shown. Such information made it easier to understand which communities were being most affected by the virus.

The top issue nationally related to the publication of specific coronavirus data involving nursing home cases and deaths, where state and local officials have faced intense scrutiny over the collection and release of such information. The virus has hit nursing homes exceptionally hard — a result of both their residents' vulnerability and policies states and localities have put into place.

In one such example, Arizona officials argued this month they should not reveal the names of facilities with outbreaks because it could give those nursing homes a stigma and could lead to discrimination against them. The argument was made in response to a lawsuit from Arizona news outlets demanding the state provide information on COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and other data.

In Pennsylvania, state officials released such data last week after weeks of delay and in the face of significant pressure.

The federal government, on the other hand, plans to publish such information by the end of May.

Hart said more information on nursing homes could paint a clearer picture of what happened specifically in New York with the spread of COVID-19. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has come under fire for his administration's March order that nursing homes must accept coronavirus patients. That order was reversed earlier this month.

The group Frieden now leads as president and CEO, Resolve to Save Lives, released a list of suggested criteria to adjust social distancing measures based on key indicators that he believes should be available in every city, state and country. Those indicators include case-count trends and health system and testing capacity to create an alert index for a specific area's level of risk.

He said much would be improved if the CDC would provide and explain the meaning of such data, adding though "much more information is available, it has not been standardized, validated and presented in clear and compelling ways."