Political leaders in Florida and Missouri are opting to censor scientists and bury COVID-19 data rather than use that data to protect people in their states. In Florida, state officials pressured researchers at the University of Florida to destroy COVID-19 data and prevented them from accessing state data and from publishing their scientific research. In Missouri, the governor’s office buried an analysis by the state’s health department showing that mask mandates reduced COVID-19 infections and deaths.
We’ve seen these types of tactics dozens of times before. Government officials repeatedly buried vital public health data about the pandemic during the Trump administration, and—according to our research—suppressed scientific or public health information to some extent during every presidential administration going back to at least the 1950s. We’ve witnessed it so often that we at UCS can see the exact play this action is setting in motion: if you don’t have data, you can’t figure out what harms communities are facing, and therefore you can’t enact evidence-based policies to protect communities from these harms.
With the Omicron variant now detected in 30 US states and COVID-19 case and hospitalization numbers once again rising, COVID-19 remains a serious threat. By suppressing COVID-19 data and research, Florida and Missouri are prioritizing political interests above science, which in turn will have deadly consequences for people in Florida, Missouri, and across the United States.
At the University of Florida, a faculty senate committee commissioned a report in which they detailed numerous faculty members being gagged by “current elected state leaders.” The committee was flooded with input from faculty members who described incidents ranging from being barred from providing expert testimony in a lawsuit against the state, to censorship on race and COVID-19 research across scientific disciplines.
In Florida, researchers feared losing their jobs
Here’s one particularly telling sentence from the report:
“Some examples of challenges reported to the ad hoc committee include external pressure to destroy deidentified data, barriers to accessing and analyzing deidentified data in a timely manner, and barriers to publication of scientific research which, taken together, inhibited the ability of faculty to contribute scientific findings during a world-wide pandemic.”
The censorship also extended to talking about race. According to the report, websites were required to be changed and course syllabi restructured, so the “use of the terms ‘critical’ and ‘race’ could not appear together in the same sentence or document.”
Additionally, University of Florida faculty and employees were told by state officials “not to criticize the Governor of Florida or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions” and not to use their university titles or affiliation in written commentary or when giving oral presentations.
This, in turn, led the University of Florida employees to self-censor their behavior for fear of retaliation. As the report noted, “There was grave concern about retaliation and a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way.”
Scientists, researchers, and academics should never have to fear for the safety of their own career simply because they were doing their job of conducting research and making that research accessible to the public.
In Missouri, data on mask mandates was buried
During the worst part of the pandemic’s Delta variant wave in November, the office of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson posed a simple question to the state’s Department of Health and Senior Service: “Can you provide examples of local [mask] mandates and how those mandates impacted the spread of COVID in those areas?”
Within 48 hours, the experts at the health department completed an analysis comparing COVID-19 case and death rates between Missouri jurisdictions that had mask mandates and those that did not. In line with other studies, the results provided strong scientific proof of the benefits of masks during the pandemic. From April to October 2021, communities with mask mandates averaged 15.8 cases a day per 100,000 residents while communities without mask mandates averaged 21.7 cases a day per 100,000 residents. Communities with mask mandates also experienced fewer COVID-19 deaths than non-masked communities, with masked communities reporting one death per 100,000 residents every 5 days compared to one death per 100,000 residents every 3.5 days for unmasked communities.
However, the Missouri governor’s office buried this data. It was only released to the public as a result of a public records request. Gov. Parson has repeatedly spoken out against mask mandates and described them as a contributor to the erosion of public trust.
My colleague, Rebecca Boehm, recently called out the decision by Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to lift mask mandates despite the lack of robust evidence to support that decision. When the science suggests that measures such as mask mandates help reduce community spread and save lives, it is imperative that government officials make this research accessible to the public and use this science to guide their decisionmaking processes.
Stop gagging scientists
Governments need to rely on solid data and research to make good decisions. Scientists need and deserve strong protections so they can do their jobs without political interference. Especially during the pandemic, it is disturbing for governmental officials to turn on scientists and censor them for carrying out this vital work.
It is imperative that we implement strong safeguards, such as those in the federal Scientific Integrity Act, so that scientists in Florida, Missouri, and in other parts of the United States can continue to carry out their research without fear of political reprisal. All of us, especially those in marginalized communities hit hardest by the virus, depend on COVID-19 scientists to carry out robust research that can illuminate our path toward beating back this deadly pandemic.