A top Florida Department of Health data manager alleges she was forced to resign from her job maintaining the state’s COVID-19 portal because she refused to change data that would “drum up support for the plan to reopen” amid the pandemic.
Rebekah Jones, the architect behind the Sunshine State’s interactive COVID-19 dashboard once praised by the White House, told several news outlets on Tuesday she was removed from her position as Graphic Information Systems manager on May 5 due to “reasons beyond my division’s control.” On Monday, the state’s Department of Health offered her a settlement with the option to resign instead of being fired, which would go into effect on May 26, she said.
Jones, 30, told CBS12 News that her involuntary removal came one day after she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” The scientist, however, did not elaborate on which data in particular she refused to alter.
To date, nearly 2,000 Floridians have died and 46,442 have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Despite the ongoing public health issue, Gov. Ron Desantis announced last week his plan to open up Florida’s virus-stricken economy.
The news of Jones’ ouster was first revealed in a May 5 farewell email she sent to researchers and members of the public who signed up to receive updates on the data portal. In the email, Jones said her department was no longer responsible for updating information on the site “in any shape or form.”
“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,” Jones wrote. “They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data.”
The COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard provides daily updates on the numbers of deaths, new cases, and tests for every county in the state. Seen as one of the leading trackers in the state, the portal is heavily relied upon by officials, academics, and residents as Florida moves toward restarting the economy three months after issuing a stay-at-home order.
According to internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, reporters contacted the department on May 4 about a field of data that showed when residents first began to report their virus symptoms or testing positive. The data, according to the emails, showed that Floridians were experiencing symptoms as early as Jan. 1—three months earlier than when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the state.
That field of data vanished from the portal several hours later, the Times reported. Then, at around 5 p.m. on May 5, Department of Health I.T. Director Craig Curry messaged Jones asking her to “disable the ability to export data” from the interactive COVID-19 site.
“Per Dr. Blackmore, disable the ability to export the data to files from the dashboard immediately,” Curry wrote, referring to Dr. Carina Blackmore, the director of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection in Florida. “We need to ensure that dates (date fields) in all objects match their counterpart on the PDF line list published.”
Minutes later, Jones responded saying “this is the wrong call” before complying with the request. About an hour later, at 6 p.m. on May 5, the I.T. director emailed both Jones and Blackmore asking them to “re-enable” the ability to export data “for now.”
The Florida Department of Health did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“Allegations that Florida’s government may have tried to manipulate or alter data to make reopening appear safer is outrageous. These kinds of actions are dangerous and, frankly, should be criminal,” Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a Tuesday statement to The Daily Beast. “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.”
Jones joined the Florida Department of Health in 2018 after obtaining her doctorate in geography from Florida State University in 2018. She told Florida Today she spent “sixteen hours a day for two months” creating the COVID-19 dashboard to ensure Floridians and researchers had a tool that would allow them to analyze the coronavirus situation in real time.
Despite the hard work, several researchers have slammed the portal for consistently excluding the racial and ethnic data breakdowns of COVID-19 cases and deaths from the dashboard—a seemingly growing nationwide problem throughout this pandemic.
In April, Jones’ dashboard received national attention from Dr. Deborah Birx. In an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation, the White House coronavirus response coordinator raved about its accessibility and the importance of transparent information during a global pandemic.
“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 said. “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.”