• College of Business Expert: Florida’s Grim Coronavirus Outlook is False Narrative

College of Business Expert: Florida’s Grim Coronavirus Outlook is False Narrative

By paul owers | 7/20/2020

Inaccurate data points or misconceptions when it comes to testing, hospitalizations and deaths are giving the wrong impression that Florida is losing the coronavirus battle, according to Rebel Cole, Ph.D., a professor of finance in Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business.

Rebel Cole
Rebel Cole

For several weeks, Cole has analyzed coronavirus figures provided by the state, noting that new cases are having minimal impact on bed availability. To help people understand what is being reported, Cole and Jon Taylor, a Ph.D. student at FAU, have created a COVID-19 data tracker.

Based on his analysis, Cole believes that Florida schools and universities should return to in-person classes in the fall, noting that students with respiratory problems or school employees whose age puts them at risk for the disease could learn or work remotely from home.

Keeping schools closed would continue to compromise the education of students, particularly the economically disadvantaged, many of whom do not have broadband, internet access or even computers, he said.  The economy also would continue to suffer because millions of parents can’t go back to work if schools remain closed.

“By doing this, you’re hurting the most vulnerable economically,” said Cole, a data scientist with 35 years of experience. “It’s a bad policy.”  

Testing has skyrocketed in Florida, increasing from about 30,000 a day during the second week of June to 60,000 a day two weeks ago, to almost 100,000 tests a day this past week, according to Cole. The state is conducting more daily tests than the entire country was reporting in the last two weeks of March, when schools and businesses closed and people were ordered to stay home.

On July 12, the Florida Department of Health reported that the state posted 15,300 new coronavirus cases on July 11, easily breaking the one-day state and national record. But many of those cases were the result of tests administered one week or more before that date, according to Cole. 

“It’s the day the tests were reported to the Department of Health, not the day the test was administered,” he said. “The daily numbers are totally unreliable.”

Cole said a recent spike in “daily deaths” is based upon faulty reporting. He examined the 156 deaths reported July 16 and found that only 18 actually died on July 15 or 16. Most were reports of deaths that had occurred days and even weeks earlier.

“We need to focus on death by ‘date of death’ rather than by ‘date of a data dump,’” he said.

Cole also found 33 COVID-19 testing labs in Florida reported 100 percent positive tests, meaning the labs didn’t disclose any tests that were negative for the disease. That makes the state’s percentage of positive tests appear higher than it actually is, undermining public confidence and skewing the debate over whether schools and businesses should be open, Cole said.

He added that the state’s figures reveal less than 10 percent of the hospitalized patients are 34 or younger, while death totals show that people under age 35 are about four times as likely to die of the seasonal flu as COVID-19.

Even the daily fatality rate for age 75 and older has plummeted from about 40 percent in April to less than 5 percent in late June. It is clear that improved treatments have made the disease less deadly, according to Cole.

“Follow the data, and the data show that children, high-schoolers and college students are not at risk,” he said.

Cole also points out that the original strain of the COVID-19 virus, known as “D614,” mutated into a new strain known as “G614,” which researchers have found to be about 10 times as infectious as the original virus. It is G614 that is prevalent across the Sun Belt, where positive cases have soared, but it appears much less lethal than D614, he noted.