KEY POINTS

  • Florida has stopped tracking flu-like symptoms
  • Experts say this will make it more difficult to track COVID-19
  • CDC uses flu-like data as a key indicator of coronavirus spread 

The Florida Department of Health stopped publishing data on patients with flu-like symptoms in its weekly surveillance reports in late March, raising worries that the state may find it more difficult to track the spread of COVID-19.

The federal policy is to track the number of Americans with flu-like illnesses, as it is potentially an indicator of coronavirus infection, and the Centers for Disease Control “is modifying existing surveillance systems, many used to track influenza and other respiratory viruses annually, to track COVID-19.”

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Miami Herald that Florida's decision is “bad practice” and “even with the best intentions, to change the meaning of the numbers you’re reporting in the middle of an epidemic certainly makes things a lot worse.”

Medics transfer a patient on a stretcher from Holland America's cruise ship Zaandam after it docked at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Medics transfer a patient on a stretcher from Holland America's cruise ship Zaandam after it docked at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Photo: AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA

When reached for comment by The Herald, the Florida Department of Health downplayed the decision and claimed that people with flu-like symptoms usually do not have COVID-19. This decision is difficult to square with the CDC’s own practices, as their website lists common flu-like symptoms of “fever, cough, and shortness of breath” as the primary symptoms of COVID-19. The CDC also publishes a weekly report called COVIDView which includes influenza-like data from around the country.

According to Lipsitch, the issue at the heart of this debate stems from a lack of testing. It is true that not everyone who demonstrates flu-like symptoms has the coronavirus, but in the absence of widespread COVID-19 tests, flu-like data can be a key indicator for epidemiologists to track the virus--especially as Florida’s cold and flu season winds down through late March and early April.

One reason why Florida has come under increased scrutiny is due to both their relative increase in coronavirus cases (currently they have the 7th most confirmed cases in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University) and their higher-risk population, as 20.5% of Floridians are over the age of 65, compared to the national average of 15%.