Florida Health Department manager Rebekah Jones dismissal becomes political, COVID-19 data questions persists

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FLORIDA TODAY’s Isadora Rangel talks to investigations reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about the termination of Florida’s COVID-19 data chief.

Florida Today

Last month, on April 20, Esri, a company that provides the software tools used to build Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard singled out the “Dedicated Scientist in Florida [who] Made Quick Moves to Map the Disease.” Esri was talking about Rebekah Jones, the Florida Department of Health manager whose recent dismissal set off controversy and serious concerns from researchers about state censorship of COVID-19 data.

The Esri article credited Jones for building the dashboard as well as managing it, highlighting her academic and professional qualifications.

But in remarks on Wednesday in Orlando, Gov Ron DeSantis challenged all that, questioning Jones’ credentials and painting her as a disruptive employee and a criminal.

“She’s being charged with cyber stalking and cyber sexual harassment,” he said, adding that this was also part of why she was dismissed.

DeSantis remarks came hard on the heels of an article in the capitolist.com by former Rick Scott spokesman, Brian Burgess, that accused Jones and the media that wrote about her —  including FLORIDA TODAY — of mischaracterizing her role as the architect of the dashboard and a scientist, while glossing over her criminal record.

The story about what happened to Jones, her role and the dashboard data has suddenly become an ugly political hot potato of an issue.

“I’m not surprised at efforts to dismiss her [Jones’] credibility, as the governor pursued,” said State Representative Anna V. Eskamani one of several democratic state legislators demanding an investigation into Jones’ dismissal and allegations of data manipulation.

Eskamani said it is a common strategy to attack those who question the status quo, in particular with women, saying it is important to examine the allegations Jones made about efforts to tamper with the data.

Jones was removed from her role managing the dashboard on May 5, according to a May 15 email to data users in which she said: “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.”

After FLORIDA TODAY reported this email, Jones told CBS-12 in West Palm Beach that she had been fired for refusing to “manipulate” data to favor the state’s reopening. Jones told FLORIDA TODAY that her May 15 email was also the reason.

The extent of that alleged manipulation was not defined.

Jones has so far refused to talk to the media, except for in briefly worded emails when the news first broke. But in an auto reply on Wednesday night she doubled down on her central role in creating the state’s COVID-19 dashboard stating she “created, scripted and designed” it and reminded of the praise the dashboard received from the Governor’s office and the White House.

Jones’ attorney, Robert A. Morris who represents her in the alleged criminal cases in a statement said: “It is unfortunate that Ms. Jones has been thrust into this spotlight. I am certain that appropriate investigation and inquiry from oversight committees and other investigative agencies will reveal what has happened and why it has happened.”

Morris also defended Jones from the attacks on her credentials.

Jones’s resume says she has a PhD in Geography from Florida State University as well as a bachelors and masters of science in the discipline alongside credentials in journalism and mass communication. Her doctoral emphasis was in data science, according to Esri. She also has published research on hurricane modelling.

“Ms. Jones has a sound academic history,” he wrote, adding that “her prior personal history and challenges should not be mixed with the present circumstance.  Ms. Jones is working hard to resolve personal and private legal issues that are completely unrelated to her awkward thrust into the national media through no choice of her own.”

Jones’ does have a history of run ins with law enforcement in Florida. It involves multiple cases, all but a single case have been closed without conviction. One is a robbery charge that was dropped when no evidence was produced for prosecution. The rest, including the active one, relate to Jones’ personal life. She is currently facing one misdemeanor count of cyberstalking, stemming from what appears to be an acrimonious breakup.

On Tuesday evening, the governor’s spokeswoman Helen Ferre in a statement said Jones was terminated due to “a repeated course of insubordination … including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”

Internal Department of Health emails obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and shared with FLORIDA TODAY show that Jones did push back on instructions to revoke access to some data. Jones wrote this was the “wrong call” in a May 4 email before complying with the order. The next day she was reassigned.

Department of Health spokesman Alberto Moscoso, told FLORIDA TODAY in an email that Jones has not been fired but was “given an opportunity to resign. If she does not, she will be terminated.” It is not clear when the offer to resign was made. Jones had until Thursday at 5pm to decide.

While the DOH and the governor’s office appear to be trying to make Jones’ background the issue, questions remain over the transparency of the data that Jones had managed, to widespread approval from researchers

DeSantis praised the data collection and said the media failed to recognize Florida’s “success” at handling the pandemic.

“We’ve succeeded. And I think that people just don’t want to recognize it because it challenges their narrative,” he said.

As of Thursday morning, 2,144 Florida residents are reported by the state to have died from COVID-19.

However, in the past several weeks researchers and other users of the state’s data noticed changes in access to underlying information as well as glitches and a sudden disappearance and then reappearance of data.

This has caused concern for researchers’ ability to verify and validate new data against historical data.

That confidence is also shaken by formatting and — otherwise minor — changes made without explanation. Jones had regularly provided emailed updates of all changes and bug fixes to researchers.

“Any type of allegation, whether it’s big or small, about Florida’s collection of data and transparency of data should be explored,” said State Represenative Eskamani.

US Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D–Tampa) told FLORIDA TODAY in a phone call that she shared similar concerns.

“Unfortunately, the governor and the Department of Health are undermining confidence in the public health information coming out from the state,” she said.

Castor said “this is not an isolated incident… there is now a troubling pattern from the state of Florida on their reporting.”

“First it was infections, then nursing home patients, and it’s been difficult to get information on prisons, and then the medical examiner redactions, and now this,” she said Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon the database of COVID-19 deaths compiled by Florida’s medical examiners was released to the public after being suppressed for nearly a month.

“But because of the troubling pattern you tend to look at all that and say: Oh, why are they doing this at a time when they’re also really focused on opening up the economy?” she asked.

Castor also denied DeSantis’ accusations that pursuing these questions were simply partisan attacks. 

“We’re all rooting for our new governor, and we want him to do a good job,” She said. “But he has just been so unnecessarily defensive and his defensive tone does not instill confidence.”

Additional reporting by Bailey Gallion. 

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at 321-355-8144, or asassoon@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @alemzs

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