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Firing of Florida’s coronavirus data manager raises red flags about transparency

Scientist warned colleagues not to expect the ‘same level of accessibility and transparency’

Screenshot of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard.
Screenshot of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard. (Florida Department of Health)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s nationally celebrated COVID-19 dashboard suggests reopening is going as good as one can expect.

Positive test rates remain well below target levels and emergency hospitalizations for flu- and coronavirus-like illness are on the decline. But the firing of the architect and manager of the state’s dashboard raises questions about the reliability of state health department data.

An email sent by Dr. Rebekah Jones, who built and managed Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, to researchers and her former team makes a troubling claim. In the email, first reported by Florida Today, Jones claims she was fired because the website — which has been praised by White House officials — was too transparent.

“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,” Jones wrote. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

Pam Marsh, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, found the accusation disheartening. She said the timing of Jones’ removal is suspect.

“How do we make decisions based on information that’s A: inaccurate and now we have this reason to distrust it?” Marsh wondered.

The Governor’s Office disputed that the scientist’s removal had anything to do with transparency, saying it was instead a result of “insubordination” and “disrespect.”

In her email, Jones claims she was let go May 5, a day after the first phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to reopen Florida went into effect. Marsh noted that to reopen the state, officials need to show that not only is the state flattening the curve but also that the number of infections is trending downward.

Marsh isn’t alone in her skepticism of the sequence of events. Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said an investigation is necessary to get to the bottom of what happened with Jones’ employment.

“Allegations that Florida’s government may have tried to manipulate or alter data to make reopening (the economy) appear safer is outrageous," Rizzo said. "These kinds of actions are dangerous and, frankly, should be criminal. An independent investigation into these allegations is needed immediately. Meanwhile, city and state officials across Florida should closely monitor the situation to protect the public’s health.”

On Tuesday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — the lone Democrat in the Florida Cabinet — joined the chorus of voices demanding answers to Jones’ allegations. Fried sent DeSantis a letter calling for Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees and other public health officials to appear before the Cabinet at its May 28 and provide answers in response to the Florida Today report.

“It has come to my attention that Dr. Rebekah Jones, the state employee responsible for the DOH’s COVID-19 dashboard, was not only involuntarily removed from her position after expressing concerns about an order she received to manipulate COVID-19 data, but was fired yesterday by the agency you oversee,” Fried wrote.

(Read the letter here or view an embedded copy below)

“These actions undermine public trust in our government, are extraordinarily dangerous to public health, and are absolutely inconsistent with the transparency and accuracy that Floridians expect and deserve during this pandemic.”

Attempts on Tuesday to reach Jones by phone and email were unsuccessful. A message sent to her Facebook profile was answered with an automated reply saying she was not interested in doing interviews.

“More information on this is important to gather,” said Marsh, who called the circumstances “suspicious.”

In a statement Tuesday, DeSantis’ office took issue with Jones’ claims:

Rebekah Jones’ duties were to display data obtained by the Department’s epidemiological staff. The team that created the graphics on the dashboard, which was made up by multiple people, received data that was provided by subject matter experts, including Senior Epidemiologists, Surveillance Epidemiologists, and a Senior Database Analyst.

Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.

Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19. Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the Department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.

Still unclear is whether Floridians and the news media can rely on the state’s numbers. As of Tuesday, the dashboard showed just shy of 47,000 cases of COVID-19, 8,400 hospitalizations and over 2,000 deaths since the state began releasing data in March. The data shows 4.27 percent of tests are coming back positive.