TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Department of Health must release three years of detailed COVID-19 data as part of a settlement, a government watchdog group announced Monday.
The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) and former Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith agreed to a settlement that requires the Florida Department of Health to publish COVID data on its website for the next three years.
The state must also pay $152,250 to cover legal fees, FLCGA wrote in a news release.
In July 2021, Smith submitted a public records request for COVID data in Orange County while serving on the Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee. This happened about a month after the Department of Health ended its practice of releasing COVID information online in daily reports, which included detailed information for each county.
With a new surgeon general at the helm, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, Florida stripped back its COVID reports as the deadly Delta variant surge ravaged the state. Florida led the country in cases per capita and pediatric hospitalizations at the time, according to a report from the Tallahassee Democrat. Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis insisted schools and businesses remain open and often downplayed the effectiveness of precautions like masking and vaccinations.
Health officials denied Smith’s request, stating that the information he sought — including the ages, sex, ethnic and racial demographics of those with confirmed cases of the virus, and vaccination rates for the county — was confidential and not available to the public. Attorneys for FLCGA filed similar records requests for each of Florida’s 67 counties, which were denied for the same reasons as Smith’s request.
In Aug. 2021, FLCGA and Smith filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health over the denied release of public records. Several news outlets and first amendment advocacy organizations signed onto a motion in support.
In the two years since the lawsuit was filed, the medical community has criticized Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic. The state’s decision to only recommend COVID boosters to people 65 and older sparked outrage among many medical professionals.
As the litigation played out in court, the Florida Department of Health insisted that the records sought by FLCGA did not exist. However, in March 2023, the Florida Department of Health released the records after an appellate court ordered a representative from the department to sit for deposition.
“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 wrote in a news release.
FLCGA and Smith determined the released records satisfied the July 2021 records requests, so the parties agreed to a settlement. Ladapo and the Florida Department of Health did not admit wrongdoing in the suit.
“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,” Rep. Smith said in a statement. “The DeSantis administration settled in our favor because they knew what they did was wrong. We held them accountable, we required them to be more transparent and to hand over records they claimed didn’t exist, and we protected the public’s constitutional right to know.”
The Florida Department of Health must publish detailed COVID-19 data on its website each week for the next three years as part of the settlement. FLCGA said it will continue to monitor the health department to ensure they are complying with the agreement.
Over 91,000 Floridians have died from COVID, according to the most recent two-week report from the Florida Department of Health. Over 7.8 million people have tested positive for the disease and reported it to the state.