No, coronavirus case numbers in Florida are not being exaggerated

Clerical error in positive test rates doesn’t affect number of actual cases — and the corrected rate is likely still very bad

Right-wing media has begun to latch onto a reporting error in Florida’s coronavirus tests to claim that the extent of the virus’ spread is being purposely manipulated for political reasons. In fact, the number of actual positive cases will not have been affected — and they’re still going up in the Sunshine State.

The state of Florida has been setting new records for daily coronavirus cases, with 15,300 positive results reported on Sunday — the highest number reported in a single day by any U.S. state during the pandemic. The newly discovered statistical error that right-wing media are trying to latch onto — after spending the previous months hailing Florida’s approach and its early reopening of businesses, in contrast to blue states like New York — does not involve the state’s dramatic rise in raw case numbers, but instead focuses on the rate of positive cases out of all tests that have been conducted.

The local Fox-owned station in Orlando found that some labs were not reporting most of their negative test results to the state, but just their positive results. As one example of how this mathematical error affected things, the Orlando Veteran’s Medical Center had a reported positivity rate of 76%, but including more of the missing negative results back into the numbers would produce a positivity rate of 6%.

WOFL reporter Robert Guaderrama wrote:

FOX 35 News went on to speak with the Florida Department of Health on Tuesday. They confirmed that although private and public laboratories are required to report positive and negative results to the state immediately, some have not. Specifically, they said that some smaller, private labs were not reporting negative test result data to the state.

"The Department immediately began working with those labs to ensure that all results were being reported in order to provide comprehensive and transparent data," a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health said. "As the state continues to receive results from various labs, the Department will continue educating these labs on proper protocol for reporting COVID-19 test results."

The Orlando Sentinel did further reporting and found the issue centers around a fundamental difference in tracking pandemics; in the cases of most other diseases, negative test results are not usually reported to government statistics. (An example given by the Sentinel is HIV, for which only positive results are reported.)

In the case of the coronavirus, however, the positivity rate is an important indicator for tracking the virus’ spread and a basis for making public policy decisions. Health officials also said the reporting problem appeared to be occurring in smaller, private labs. By contrast, the largest lab companies appear to have not been affected, so the overall percentage of positive tests might not have been affected by too much of a margin. The reporting error does not affect the overall number of positive cases reported in the state.

On the July 14 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show, the eponymous host alleged there was a conspiracy for “elevating the number of cases” and claimed that the Florida story showed there was a “recipe for corruption” against a Republican governor in a pivotal state in the presidential election.

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Citation From the July 14, 2020, edition of Premiere Networks’ The Rush Limbaugh Show

RUSH LIMBAUGH (HOST): You have heard the horror stories that if somebody dies of a gunshot but they’ve got a trace of COVID-19, the cause of death is listed as COVID-19. There is so much bias in elevating the number of cases.

And there is a story today from Fox 35 in Florida — Orlando, Fox 35 Orlando. “Errors found … Florida’s positivity rate is skewed … Fox 35 went through COVID-19 test reports, found that many clinics are reporting 100% positivity. … Many clinics … Orlando Health is one example. They admit that their number is wrong.”

They have a number, They’re reporting 98% positive. The real number is 9.4% positive. They’re simply eliminating the decimal point and adding four points to it. That’s a huge difference. Ninety-eight percent positive — no, no, no, it’s actually 9.4. That’s just one place. Countless labs are reporting 100% positivity. That’s not possible. Which means every single person’s testing positive throughout Florida. That’s not possible.

Now, the story here does not allude that there is anything going on here. You have to conclude that yourself — which, of course, we will. We will happily conclude that something ain’t right here.

We got a Republican governor here that they hate. We have a state that Biden certainly needs to win. We have one of the most effective governors in the country, who happens to be a close associate of Trump. I mean, it’s a recipe for corruption.

So we don’t even know these numbers in Florida are accurate, and yet nobody’s questioning them. They’re just locking down, they’re shutting down, they’re reviving old shutdown theories and policies and putting them back in place.

Right-wing provocateur Candace Owens also tweeted the story Wednesday morning, falsely claiming that state officials were “caught red-handed” actually increasing the case numbers:

Limbaugh again brought up this story on the Wednesday edition of his show, declaring, “It’s not a potential scandal, it is the biggest story in the country today.” He also claimed that the errors from labs that showed 100% positivity rates were “why all these huge numbers in Florida have been reported.”

To be clear on this point again: The false positivity rates from these labs due to the omission of negative test results from their reports to the state did not actually increase any of “these huge numbers” of overall cases.

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Citation From the July 15, 2020, edition of Premiere Networks’ The Rush Limbaugh Show

Another important point: A positivity rate of over 5% indicates a significant community spread, and the Orlando Sentinel’s report noted that Florida’s current statewide rate is recorded at 15%. So even after the extent of this reporting error from smaller labs is figured out and corrected, the overall change is unlikely to be more than just a few percentage points, and still a very bad result for the state.

And considering that just yesterday Florida recorded its largest daily increase in COVID-19 deaths, the seriousness of the problem clearly exists beyond the clerical mistakes for just one statistic.