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Kathy Castor questions if Florida officials “manipulated” data regarding reduction of HIV infections

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Citing questions regarding the accuracy of the recent reduction in the state’s announcement of HIV transmissions, Tampa Bay area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor wants the feds to intervene.

In a letter to Health & Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Castor says that there are questions regarding the Florida Department of Health’s significant downward revision to its reported HIV cases for 2014.

“Florida may have the largest increase in the rate of new HIV cases,” the Tampa Representative writes. “Floridians deserve to know the public health facts. As you are aware, statistical integrity has vital ramifications for resources and actions. The CDC uses the data collected by each state to compile national statistics, important for Florida and for our nation, not to mention grant funding.”

It had been reported that Florida did lead the nation in new HIV cases until earlier this month, after the state Department of Health’s division of disease control revised the numbers. Now it ranks number three, behind California and Texas.

State records show that the department’s division of disease control lowered the number of new HIV cases logged in 2014 from 6,147 to 4,613 — erasing one in four new infections from the rolls that year.

As the Tampa Bay Times Kathleen McGrory reported, “The previous tally from 2014 represented a significant uptick as diagnoses nationwide were declining. It was enough to make Florida the national leader in new HIV cases, an embarrassing distinction for the state, Gov. Rick Scott and the health department, and more importantly, a serious public health concern.”

However, the DOH says that the Centers for Disease Control has reviewed the data from their agency regarding the state’s HIV data program in January, and did not find any problems.

“As the CDC report shows, Florida’s HIV data program is a national leader in helping health officials better understand and treat this terrible disease,” said Interim Surgeon General Dr. Celeste Philip last week. “We are also proud to have the opportunity to train professionals from other states on the best practices for collecting and interpreting HIV data. Having complete and accurate data allows us to better direct resources to communities and ultimately, individuals who need it. With the continued elimination of the ADAP waitlist for treatment as well as record funding for HIV prevention, Florida is at the forefront of fighting HIV/AIDS. I would like to thank the CDC for recognizing the good work we do at the department and our commitment to addressing their recommendations to make Florida’s surveillance program even better.”

In her letter, Castor explicitly mentions that a federal review is necessary “to help determine accurate numbers and whether or not the State manipulated the data.”

“A review is particularly important in Florida where the number of public health professionals and county health departments have suffered substantial cuts over the past four years,” Castor goes to write. “Florida is in a weaker position to address the threat of the Zika virus or other public health emergencies based upon such cuts, so the HIV/AIDS situation may prove to be a cautionary tale. … Gov. Scott and his relevant agencies often need encouragement to provide adequate and necessary care for its most vulnerable citizens.”‎

Last month Governor Scott signed the IDEA Act (“Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act”), after it passed the Florida House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The new law will create a pilot program in Miami-Dade County, run by the University of Miami, to establish sterile syringe exchanges. Those programs have a long proven track record of preventing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, in addition to being a major entryway to treatment for people who use drugs.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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