Fired Florida coronavirus data scientist now publishes her own dashboard

Rebekah Jones says she was fired from the Florida Department of Health after she refused to "manipulate" COVID-19 data (Photo: Courtesy photo)
Rebekah Jones says she was fired from the Florida Department of Health after she refused to "manipulate" COVID-19 data (Photo: Courtesy photo)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The woman who raised questions about Florida’s COVID-19 data after being ousted as the data’s curator has not stopped publishing statistics related to the novel coronavirus in the state.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that Rebekah Jones, who was fired in May, launched a COVID-19 dashboard of her own on Thursday — Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard.

“I wanted to build an application that delivered data and helped people get tested and helped them get resources that they need from their community,” Jones, 30, told The Post. “And that’s what I ended up building with this new dashboard.”

Though similar in appearance, the data presented by Jones on her dashboard is markedly different than the data on the dashboard populated by the Department of Health.

For example, Jones’s dashboard shows that more than 85,000 people in Florida have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 1, while the Department of Health Dashboard is reporting more than 77,000 cases as of Monday. On Jones’s dashboard, the number of people tested is also significantly lower than the official figure. Jones’s death toll is slightly higher because she counts nonresidents who died while they were in Florida. The state does not.

Jones has asserted that the state’s site undercounts the state’s infection total and overcounts the number of people tested in an effort to make the case for reopening the economy sooner.

Jones had been reprimanded several times and ultimately fired for violating Health Department policy by making public remarks about the information, state records show. Her comments in emails to researchers, interviews with a handful of media outlets and blog posts sought to sow doubt about the credibility of the data after her firing.

State health officials strenuously denied any issue with the information’s accuracy as Gov. Ron DeSantis was seeking to make a data-driven case for a step-by-step reopening of the state’s battered economy following safer-at-home orders. The Republican governor lashed out at a news conference last month saying Jones had a pattern of “insubordination" and should have been fired months ago.

Jones has not alleged any tampering with data on deaths, hospital symptom surveillance, hospitalizations for COVID-19, numbers of new confirmed cases, or overall testing rates — core elements of any assessment of the outbreak and of federal criteria for reopening. And Jones acknowledges Florida has been relatively transparent — for which she herself claims some credit — and relatively successful in controlling the pandemic.

She has, however, suggested Health Department managers wanted her to manipulate information to paint a rosier picture and that she pushed back.

In the CNN interview, Jones was asked whether she was removed because of an attitude problem.

“Somewhat, yes, if refusing to mislead the public during a health crisis is insubordination then I will wear that badge with honor,” Jones answered.

She said officials asked her to delete data showing that some residents tested positive for the coronavirus in January, even though DeSantis assured residents in March that there was no evidence of community spread, according to The Post. A Department of Health spokesman said the January dates that Jones referenced are not necessary when a person tested positive for the virus.

“Epidemiologists collect information that informs the Department of Health of an individual’s symptoms, contacts and location of where they may have acquired COVID-19,” spokesman Alberto Moscoso said. “The first date of entry in answer to any question, COVID-related or not, is designated the event date.”

The case count on Jones’s dashboard is higher, she said, because it includes people who have tested positive for antibodies, or proteins that indicate that the virus has been in someone’s body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “a higher percentage of positive results may be false positives when [antibody] tests are used in people who live or work in an area where very few people have had COVID-19.”

Jones stands by her statistics.

“If you’re creating something that simply presents a very narrow view of a situation that’s complex and nuanced but affects everybody’s lives, then you’re not enabling them to take action, to take some semblance of control over what they’re going through,” she said of the state health department’s dashboard.

Jones, who lives in Tallahassee, told The Post she plans to keep her dashboard running for as long as possible because she believes it gives more context to the endless stream of data.

A GoFundMe page set up to help fund her new site has raised more than $150,000 as of Monday afternoon.

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