FLORIDA TODAY’s Isadora Rangel talks to investigations reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about the termination of Florida’s COVID-19 data chief. Florida Today
Speaking publicly for the first time in an interview with CNN, a public statement posted on her blog and emails to FLORIDA TODAY, fired Florida Department of Health scientist Rebekah Jones defended herself on Friday night and laid bare allegations of corrupt interference in the state’s COVID-19 data by top officials.
While she specifically makes no implication that Governor Ron DeSantis was involved in efforts to massage or hide information on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, she paints a picture of senior FDOH officials overly eager to appease the governor and his plans to reopen the state.
Jones, is credited with building, designing and managing Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, which was praised by researchers, including by a White House scientist, as a shining example of transparency. But in an email last week, Jones said she was removed from the helm of the dashboard as of May 5, because of her commitment to “accessibility and transparency.”
After FLORIDA TODAY broke the story, Jones further alleged that she was fired for refusing to “manually change data” to favor the reopening plan.
In the days that followed, the Governor and other conservative voices attacked Jones’ credibility, character and credentials and downplayed her importance in the DOH.
Jones was given the chance to resign by 5 p.m. Thursday or face dismissal.
She did not resign.
Then for the first time on Friday she broke her silence and provided new details and evidence. She also defended herself against what she called DeSantis’ “shocking and salacious attempt at character assassination” which she said felt like “a cheap political move to avoid discussing the real story here, which is how the COVID-19 data is now being manipulated.”
In her posted public statement, appearance on CNN, and the information she provided FLORIDA TODAY, Jones alleged or showed that:
- A senior official asked for the entire dashboard to be taken offline because it provided too much data
- She was asked to massage the data for specific rural counties so that they met the statistical criteria to re-open
- The state has changed the way COVID-19 testing positivity rates are calculated to better suit the governor’s arguments
Jones most worrying charge was that in late April her superiors told her to make changes to data in specific rural counties to make them look like they were eligible to re-open. After she refused, they simply moved the goalposts so they could.
“I brought basically what the results of whether or not each county could open to superiors,” Jones told CNN’s Cuomo. “They essentially told me they did not like the results.”
In particular she said this affected more rural counties.
“When I offered good faith statistical methods to account for rural counties… They said ‘No,'” she said. “They [then] said they were going to exempt counties with a population of less than 75,000 entirely from the criteria that would be applied to every other county.”
In an email to FLORIDA TODAY, Jones said Shamarial Roberson, Deputy Secretary of Health, was the official that had asked her to “manipulate the data to mislead the public to support reopening mostly rural counties.”
Jones said what Roberson wanted her to do involved “manually editing and changing data.” Jones offered no specifics. She told CNN that she was told by an unnamed official that “We can’t tell Jackson and Franklin County, that they can’t reopen, but Broward and Miami-Dade can.”
In an emailed statement through a Health Department Spokesman, Roberson, a doctor of Public Health denied that any manipulation had occurred.
“It is patently false to say that the Department of Health has manipulated any data,” Roberson said.
But Jones said she kept records and copies of emails when it happened “because I knew it was wrong,” she wrote.
Jones also provided screenshots of emails and messages to people, the authenticity of which could not immediately be verified, which showed she was distressed by the incident when it happened and wanted to quit her job because of it.
Then, in early May, Jones pushed back on instructions to take down the whole dashboard.
In other emails she released to FLORIDA TODAY on Friday — the authenticity of which could not immediately be established — Jones revealed a chain of instructions that began on May 4, clearly instructing her to not just revoke access to certain data, as previously reported, but to take down the whole site because it provided access to the data.
“This whole site needs to come down,” Scott Pritchard wrote in one of the email Jones provided. “It literally has all the data files.”
Pritchard is the Interim Director of Infectious Disease Prevention and Investigations Section in the Bureau of Epidemiology’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection at the Department of Health.
Jones said she did remove information after telling officials it was the “wrong call” in an email, but the data was so interconnected that once she took it out it created holes in the system, making obvious that data had been eliminated. Officials then asked for the information to be put back. This matches researchers’ observations that data disappeared earlier this month but was put back the next day.
“It was absolutely deleted. It’s public record that it was deleted. The data did go down: [but] it broke all of the links across our department Emergency Management website [and] our own Department of Health website,” Jones said on CNN.
Jones said part of the motivation to take certain data down was because Deputy Secretary Roberson “did not want the public to see non-resident data nor the event date data, which the Miami Herald had confronted her and Scott Pritchard about earlier that day,” Jones wrote.
Registering her disapproval in an email to IT Director Craig Curry she wrote “I’m not pulling our primary resource for coronavirus data because he (Pritchard) wants to stick it to journalists.”
“I pushed back against altering and deleting data, and removing the capability of the public to see the data themselves because it went against the very transparency that had made my dashboard a success and trusted resource,” she told FLORIDA TODAY.
“Because I created and managed the dashboard by myself, I was the only person who could alter it or the data behind it, so they had to go come to me with requests to make changes.”
On CNN, Jones also leveled new allegations that the state’s COVID-19 testing positivity rate was calculated in such a way as to bolster arguments for re-opening Florida.
“Normally when people think of a percent, they think the number of positive people, divided by the number of people tested. That seems honest and fair. They changed it to number of new cases per day over the number of negative tests per day,” Jones said, characterizing the change as “deceptive.”
Researchers who spoke to FLORIDA TODAY have been asking the state how the positivity rate was calculated and say they are still waiting for an answer. FLORIDA TODAY has also asked the DOH but received no response yet.
Earlier this week Gov. Ron DeSantis said Jones removal and allegations were a “non-issue.” Jones’ character and credentials also came under fire as a criminal charge she is facing related to her personal life was raised by the governor.
A spokesman for the governor in previous statements said Jones was fired for repeated insubordination and for being “disruptive.”
“In other words you have a ‘tude problem,” Cuomo said after reading the statement, before asking: “do you accept the criticism?”
“Somewhat, yes, if refusing to mislead the public during a health crisis is insubordination then I will wear that badge with honor,” Jones replied.
The Department of Health did not respond to further inquiries overnight.
Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at 321-355-8144, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @alemzs
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