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Thursday, October 06, 2022

UF has ditched its responsibility to inform the community about COVID-19. 

The Alligator is not giving up on its duty. 

We’ve been reporting on COVID-19 since the pandemic hit in March 2020. Our reporting uncovered UF’s failures to respond to concerns of students, faculty and the greater community. We uncovered problems with UF’s covid dorms, UF testing and careless protective measures.

The Alligator has remained committed to providing updated information on changing UF policies and COVID numbers on campus

However, we took down our COVID-19 dashboard Jan. 27. We lacked the data from UF, and in the interest of transparency, we feel that we owe our readers an explanation. 

At the start of the semester, UF stopped tracking its COVID-19 cases. It combined efforts with the Florida Department of Health. The Alligator was told that requests for up-to-date data should be made through the FDOH starting Jan. 1 and that this data would be available on the county COVID dashboard

Our reporters asked Jeremy Redfern, FDOH press secretary, multiple times for UF COVID-19 numbers. 

His response? Confusion.

“They are reported as cases for Alachua County, which we post on CDC’s website.”

FDOH has always tracked COVID-19 numbers by county and it doesn’t have a way to tell whether a positive test belongs to a UF affiliate. So, Redfern was unsure why UF Health sent The Alligator to FDOH.

At the same time, UF Health has continued meeting with us weekly. 

UF Health Shands Hospital CEO Ed Jimenez and other UF Health representatives have met with reporters for transparency, updates on COVID numbers and how it is handling the omicron variant. But this isn’t enough. 

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Information for UF-specific numbers have been impossible to obtain since the end of UF Health Screen, Test & Protect. This isn’t OK.

When UF announced in December that it was transferring STP services to FDOH and that the UF COVID dashboard would be discontinued, some faculty expressed concern given the omicron surge. Students, faculty and staff have long relied on UF’s COVID-19 numbers reports to remain aware of campus safety. 

However, others believe that the continuation of the dashboard was unnecessary. We disagree.

Robert Cook, a UF professor in the Epidemiology Department, wrote in an email that the data on the dashboard would most likely be inaccurate. This is due to the increase of at-home tests and the possibility of COVID-19 positive people not reporting their positive tests.

In January, when omicron cases were at their highest, he believes the dashboard with specific numbers for campus weren’t needed to prove that cases were high. But as reporters ourselves, we believe in UF’s transparency.

But Ken Garcia, UF Health spokesperson, shares Cook’s view. Continuing to report numbers would have resulted in incomplete and misleading numbers, he wrote.

“Case numbers, even if they could be accurately measured, are far less important than things such as number of hospitalizations and vaccination status,” Garcia wrote. “This is a logical next phase as this pandemic becomes endemic and we maintain the ability to rapidly scale up mitigation measures if necessary.”

The campus cases, which FDOH reports, are included in the county’s data, he wrote. 

And for Garcia, that’s apparently enough information for people to be aware of what is happening with COVID-19 on campus and make a decision.  

“With the extent of exposure to the virus through society, what happens on campus is very unlikely to be different from what is happening in the community at large,” he wrote. 

While that may be true, we believe providing the UF community with information is UF’s responsibility. UF owes it to students, faculty and staff. 

If the “endemic” is approaching, why stop now? Let people know what is happening. 

We’re almost two years in, and while UF may be growing tired of keeping up with numbers and reporting for the community, we are not. 

The Alligator is committed to producing accurate and trustworthy news, and will continue our efforts to report for the UF community, Gainesville and beyond. 

Health and Environment Reporter Lucille Lannigan contributed reporting to this editorial.

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