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Yahoo story accusing Florida of cooking COVID death count goes viral with liberals, but truth more complicated

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A host of liberal websites and personalities gleefully shared a Yahoo story Tuesday purporting Florida undercounted its coronavirus deaths by thousands, but the story quoted more experts undercutting its premise than supporting it.

The piece by left-wing reporter Alexander Nazaryan, headlined “Florida COVID numbers face new scrutiny,” leads with “new research” that the state isn’t accurately reporting its death count, but critics of the article said it was the result of amateur data cherry-picking in yet another media effort to tear down Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The crux of the piece came from American Journal of Public Health researchers singling out Florida after comparing the number of estimated deaths from March to September 2020 to the actual number of deaths in the state. This figure is known as “excess deaths” because they exceed the estimate, Nazaryan reported, and lead researcher Moosa Tatar said COVID-19 was likely responsible for most of the excess deaths.

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“In the case of Florida, the researchers say, 4,924 excess deaths should have been counted as resulting from COVID-19 but for the most part were ruled as having been caused by something else, thus lowering Florida’s coronavirus fatality count,” Nazaryan wrote. That’s possible because people who die from COVID-19 often have comorbidities, such as diabetes and asthma.”

However, later in the piece, Nazaryan acknowledged the findings were not “universally accepted,” including by a top Centers for Disease Control statistician and several other experts who said nothing about Florida’s numbers raised any alarms.

“Lauren Rossen, a statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics at the [CDC] who has analyzed excess deaths, told Yahoo News that she saw nothing exceptionally suspicious in the state’s excess death numbers,” Nazaryan wrote.

Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, also told Yahoo it was wrong to assume all excess deaths were due to coronavirus.

“I don’t think there’s anything egregious going on with the data,” he told Yahoo News. “I would know. I am just constantly in these data.”

Yale epidemiologist Daniel Weinberger said his analysis indicated the Florida “gap” between COVID-19 and excess deaths was about average, according to the story.

Nazaryan cited partisan criticisms of DeSantis for keeping the state largely open and being a Donald Trump supporter in the piece, but he also acknowledged Florida’s 15% rate of excess deaths matched California’s. The national average was 21%, according to the CDC.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, March 2, 2021 during his State of the State address at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, March 2, 2021 during his State of the State address at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

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MSNBC analyst Fernand Amandi, who was recently busted for sharing a 2019 photo of Miami Beach to shame vacationers for flouting coronavirus distancing guidelines, shared the piece and claimed it raised “disturbing questions” over DeSantis’s management of the pandemic. He was retweeted by far-left MSNBC anchor Joy Reid, a notorious disseminator of conspiracy theories who also shared the misleading beach photo.

It was also shared by Florida Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a staunch DeSantis critic, and Rebekah Jones, a left-wing data analyst who was fired from the Florida Department of Health for insubordination and later arrested on charges she illegally accessed the department’s computer system. Jones became a media heroine for claiming, without proof, DeSantis ordered state officials to manipulate COVID data.

It received extensive attention from other progressives who declared it smoking-gun proof that DeSantis had cooked death numbers. The Drudge Report, the former juggernaut news aggregator that has taken a sharp left turn in recent years, put the story as its banner throughout much of Tuesday with the misleading headline, “Research finds 5,000 more dead.”

Critics of the piece slammed Nazaryan for the partisan framing. He is known for his 2016 tweet comparing Ted Cruz supporters to Nazis and recently penned an Atlantic piece comparing reporting on Trump to storming Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Twitter user PoliMath noted all states have have more likely coronavirus deaths if their excess death rate was examined, and Florida was no outlier. Another account shared an analysis of the ratio of states’ confirmed coronavirus death counts to the CDC’s excess death projection and found Florida was in the middle of the country.

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Florida and DeSantis have become a relentlesss focus of negative attention from liberal news sites and cable outlets MSNBC and CNN, likely due to DeSantis’s prominent posture and Trump support. Florida’s economy has remained relatively strong as DeSantis has kept the state largely open throughout the pandemic.

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His move to keep the state open initially drew criticism but these policies have drawn a second look in recent weeks as New York and California continue to struggle in spite of lockdowns and mask mandates.

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