Chart comparing New York and Florida on COVID-19 is flawed. Here’s why


Who would have thought a global pandemic would only heighten a longstanding rivalry between Florida and New York?

Tensions flared early in the COVID-19 outbreak when Florida issued restrictions on travelers from New York, then a raging hot spot for the virus. New York returned the favor in the summer, putting Florida travelers on its own quarantine list.

Now, social media users are comparing the two states’ handling of the virus, sharing a pro-Florida Instagram post from an account called "Unwoke Narrative" that points to the states’ politically opposed governors as reasons for differences in state COVID-19 data. 

Invoking the names of Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a graphic titled "Cuomo vs. DeSantis: How NY & FL Handled the Virus" lists several COVID-19 figures for each state. "Cuomo maintained strict lockdowns, crushing jobs and freedom," it says. "DeSantis took the opposite route and rejected tyranny. Who was right?"

Spoiler alert: The graphic determines Florida is the winner "even though Florida has a larger population," "is disproportionately elderly" and "is visited by more potentially infected tourists." 

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

It cites as sources the Washington Examiner, New York Post, NBC, Washington Post and Statista. The accompanying text points readers to a website with more information. Some of the numbers check out. The graphic is close, for example, on the spread between the states’ hospitalizations and vaccinations administered.

But when we reviewed the overall claim, we found the broader comparison misleads by oversimplifying the relationship between the data and lockdown rules in each state. 

Let’s take a look.

New York was Ground Zero 

The post’s most glaring omission, experts told us, was its lack of context about the pandemic’s timing and impact in the two states.

"New York was the epicenter of the pandemic last spring, long before Florida had significant numbers of cases," said Richard Mollot, executive director at the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a nonprofit focused on improving quality of care for people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The virus hit New York early and hard, before there was enough access to personal protective equipment and before health officials or emergency room doctors and nurses knew much about the virus, including the best ways to treat and stabilize it. 

The result was mass devastation and death. During that early stage, the state was averaging over 900 deaths a day.

Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said not only was New York’s experience unlike any other in the nation, but it also informed how the rest of the country would manage the pandemic. "There’s no question that Florida hospitals were able to learn from what New York went through and benefited as a result," she said.

Nursing home deaths needs context 

Cuomo’s administration has faced intense scrutiny over its undercounting of COVID-19 nursing home deaths. New York’s attorney general released a Jan. 28 report that found the state had failed to report thousands of deaths. Hours later, the state’s health department added more than 3,800 deaths to the tally, each a resident whose hospital death had not been previously counted.

Yes, New York is reporting higher numbers of COVID-19 deaths of nursing home and assisted living facility residents than Florida, but we couldn't find data that puts it as high as the graphic reports — 15,000+ in New York compared with 9,000+ in Florida. The latest state numbers from Feb. 4, which includes the hospitalization data, show about 13,300 have died in New York. Florida’s total is around 9,700.

Priya Chidambaram, a senior policy analyst at Kaiser Family Foundation who has tracked the pandemic’s impact on long-term care facility residents, said the post is problematic because states collect and report data differently.

"They're not necessarily comparable," she said. "Non-nursing home settings are defined differently in each state. The best way to compare is to look at recent trends in federal data." 

As of Feb. 7, such federal data showed New York had 10.1 positive COVID-19 cases per 1,000 nursing home residents, while Florida was at 6.3. When it came to deaths per 1,000 residents, New York was at 2.99 residents and Florida at 1.85.

It’s important to note that the states don’t have comparable nursing home population numbers, at least as of 2019. New York was reporting about 19,000 more residents in certified nursing facilities than Florida, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data.