9 Investigates

Unaccounted deaths could increase Florida’s COVID-19 death toll, experts say

ORLANDO, Fla. — Reports of COVID-19 related deaths in Florida continue to add up every day. But the total numbers of deaths from the virus could be higher than reported so far, as hundreds of deaths in March and April remain unaccounted for.

9 Investigates uncovered data that shows its likely others died from the virus before the state’s first confirmed COVID-19 death. The medical examiner in Southwest Florida is investigating two cases already.

Russell Vega, district 12 medical examiner, described those cases as “deaths that occurred considerably earlier on than our first known (COVID-19) death.”


READ: Florida Department of Health underreporting COVID-19 deaths in Orange, Osceola counties

9 Investigates pulled records from the Florida Vital Statistics registry, which maintains records for all deaths in the state.

Going back to 2015, the average death count for March is about

18,416 deaths statewide.

This year it increased to 19,662.

The state has, so far, attributed 186 deaths in March to COVID-19.

That leaves 1,060 deaths unaccounted for.

In April, there are 465 excess deaths.

Dr. Thomas Tsai, a Harvard researcher, said the unaccounted deaths highlight the degree of undertesting that has happened across the country.

He said issues include “clear shortages in the supply chain” and a “lack of a clear strategy.”

Medical examiners across the state said testing is still a problem.

READ: Coronavirus: Do masks protect you; how do you wear them, where do you find them?

Even now, they said they don't have enough kits to test every body coming into the morgue.

“Does it costs money? It does. I think the real question is will there be sufficient volume of testing period to be able to do the testing that we would want to do, plus every other jurisdiction in the country?” Vega said.

Medical examiners in Florida are required to maintain specimen samples from bodies for a year. That testing, though, may not be an exact science.

“Are we ever going to be able to specifically identify those cases and add them to our counts? That’s a very up in the air question,” Vega said.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.