As the United States starts to reopen its economy and worries mount about a potential resurgence of the Coronavirus, one public health official on the front lines of monitoring the situation in Florida in particular has been removed from her position. Rebekah Jones, a scientist with the Florida Department of Health, revealed in recent days that she had been abruptly removed from the role of supervising the distribution of data about the Coronavirus in Florida via a publicly available website featuring a dashboard with all sorts of information, even including cases broken down by ZIP code. Jones says that she was removed after refusing to censor data, leaving the future of transparency surrounding the Coronavirus in Florida very much in doubt.
Rebekah Jones said in an email to CBS12 News that her removal was "not voluntary" and that she was removed from her position because she was ordered to censor some data, but refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen." https://t.co/qWsPQ6eaDg
— Donna Deegan (@DonnaDeegan) May 19, 2020
She was apparently removed from her post as of May 5, towards the very beginning of Florida’s reopening efforts. Florida Today reports:
‘Citing “reasons beyond my division’s control,” Jones said her office is no longer managing the dashboard, is no longer involved in publication, fixing errors or answering questions “in any shape or form.” She warned that she does not know what the new team’s intentions are for data access, including “what data they are now restricting.”‘
Separately, Jones told CBS12 that she had refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”
Rebekah Jones, who is credited with creating the Florida Department of Health data portal, told CBS12 News she was removed because she refused to censor data and “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” https://t.co/B5mKdX1iPt
— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) May 19, 2020
In an email update to individuals who’d signed up for updates about the Florida Coronavirus data website, Jones wrote:
‘I understand, appreciate, and even share your concern about all the dramatic changes that have occurred and those that are yet to come. 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.’
Ousting a public health official because of their commitment to transparency amidst a deadly pandemic isn’t exactly a good look for Florida, which passed 2,000 total Coronavirus deaths this week.
Rebekah Jones, managing Florida’s public “dashboard” of COVID-19 data
blasts bosses, hints at data suppression & questions the Department of Health’s commitment to “accessibility and transparency.”
says that her office has been removed from the project
— Dr. Claudia William M.D. 🩺💊 (@DrCSWilliam) May 19, 2020
Jennifer Larsen, a researcher at the University of Central Florida, pointed out:
‘We would not accept this lack of transparency for any other natural disaster, so why are we willing to accept it here?.. 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.’
The data scientist who designed Florida's COVID-19 dashboard — a mobile friendly, intuitive display of the outbreak — has been removed from her position because she refused to censor data and manipulate numbers to generate support for reopening, she says https://t.co/tfINPDuFiU pic.twitter.com/Gd28JpBFgl
— Hamza Shaban (@hshaban) May 19, 2020
Larsen’s team has attempted to access underlying data about the Coronavirus in Florida, which was previously available, but the state has evidently clammed up, insisting that the data would not be available for a year, although the state releases provisional data about similar situations like influenza outbreaks all the time.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is a close Trump ally and has frequently explicitly tied his Coronavirus handling decisions to decisions from the White House. He has faced steep criticism for sometimes seeming to ignore the public health prerogative behind any effective Coronavirus response.