COVID-19 data chief claims she was fired for refusing to “manipulate data” to back reopening Florida

Rebekah Jones says she was fired for declining to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published May 19, 2020 2:59PM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question at a news conference at the Urban League of Broward County, during the new coronavirus pandemic (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question at a news conference at the Urban League of Broward County, during the new coronavirus pandemic (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The architect of Florida's COVID-19 data dashboard claims that she was fired by the state's health department for refusing to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

Rebekah Jones, who managed the dashboard praised by the White House, first announced that she had been removed on May 5 as the Geographic Information Systems manager for the Florida Department of Health in a farewell note citing "reasons beyond my division's control," Florida Today reported.

Jones later told the outlet that she had been fired by the department for refusing to "manipulate data."

Emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times showed that on the day before she was fired, officials directed Jones to remove data showing members of the public had reported experiencing symptoms of the disease before cases were officially announced. Jones warned her superiors that it was the "wrong call," and control of the data was given to other employees the following day.

The dashboard that Jones built was used by researchers, the media and the public to track data in the state. Over the last few weeks, it has crashed and missed data "without explanation," according to the report.

A spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., told the outlet that the dashboard was built by Jones' team, and while she is "no longer involved, the GIS team continues to manage and update the Dashboard providing accurate and important information that is publicly accessible."

Jones disputed that characterization, arguing that she wrote "every line of code."

"I worked on it alone — 16 hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened, I'll probably never get paid for," she told Florida Today.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House task force, praised the dashboard last month as an example of how states should make data accessible to the public.

"If you go to the Florida Public Health website on COVID, they've been able to show their communities' cases and tests district by district, county by county, ZIP code by ZIP code," Birx told CBS News. "That's the kind of knowledge and power we need to put into the hands of American people, so that they can see where the virus is — where the cases are — and make decisions."

Jones told local news outlet CBS12 that the dashboard has been left in disrepair since her ouster.

She told the same outlet that her removal was "not voluntary," and she was fired for refusing to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen" after being told to "censor" some data.

"I understand, appreciate and even share your concern about all the dramatic changes that have occurred and those that are yet to come," she wrote in a farewell email to researchers earlier this month. "As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it."

The move alarmed scientists who relied upon the data.

"We would not accept this lack of transparency for any other natural disaster, so why are we willing to accept it here?" Jennifer Larsen, a researcher at the University of Central Florida, asked Florida Today. "It's all of us being denied access to what we need to know to be safe. It's just absurd that this is being treated differently than any other threat to Floridians."

Jones warned researchers that the data on the dashboard could be unreliable now.

"They are making a lot of changes," she wrote. "I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data."

Florida officials previously came under fire for ordering medical examiners to stop releasing coronavirus death counts after they reported a higher total than the state's official count.

Dr. Stephen Nelson, the head of the state's Medical Examiner's Commission, blasted the department after they "intervened."

"This is no different than any other public record we deal with," he said. "It's paid for by taxpayer dollars, and the taxpayers have a right to know."

"When politicians censor scientists and manipulate the numbers, the rest of us suffer," Dr. Lucky Tran, a biologist at Columbia University, tweeted. "The only way we get out of this pandemic is with facts, and acting upon the best science we have."

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., warned that if the move was intended to generate a sense of safety as the state reopens it could badly backfire.

"Lives are at stake... Floridians will not feel safe in opening back up without transparency," she wrote.

Castor sent a letter to DeSantis demanding answers for Jones' firing and "how the state intends to fully report all COVID-19 public health data without censorship by the Department of Health or anyone else."

"Floridians, scientists and public health experts need accurate and timely information in order to make the best decisions about going to work, going to school and going out in public," she wrote. "The state's lack of transparency around COVID-19 public health data is troubling and unwise."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Coronavirus Covid-19 Deborah Birx Florida Politics Rebekah Jones Ron Desantis