One of the most persistent falsehoods of the COVID pandemic has been the claim that Florida has been “hiding” data. This idea has been advanced primarily by Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health employee, who, having at first expressed only some modest political disagreements with the way in which Florida responded to COVID, has over time become a fountain of misinformation.
Jones’s claims about Florida’s data have been wildly inconsistent, repeatedly self-contradictory, and, at times, nothing short of technically impossible. Indeed, at this late stage in the proceedings, it is easier to point to the allegations that have not been assiduously debunked than at the ones that have. But there is one claim that, while utterly meritless, has remained persistent: that Rebekah Jones was asked to “hide” data on her dashboard, and, in turn, that this request demonstrates that her claims of conspiracy are correct. This piece will debunk that falsehood from start to finish.
Last week, the Miami Herald published an embarrassingly self-serving piece that sought to resuscitate Jones’s reputation. At the heart of this piece was a reference to a public-records requests confirming that (a) while working at the Department of Health in 2020, Rebekah Jones was asked to remove a single line of data from public view, and (b) that she responded to this instruction by saying, “This is the wrong call.” On the basis of these assertions, the Herald made an accompanying claim that got a lot of attention: that Florida’s state epidemiologists were guilty of “taking data down.”
This is false. Florida’s epidemiologists were guilty of no such thing, and, while quoted accurately, the records request simply does not show what Rebekah Jones pretends that it does. Here, as elsewhere, we are dealing with a clever piece of misdirection that is designed to confuse the reader.
To understand what is happening here, one needs to go back to the beginning. Over the past 15 months, Florida has published a truly remarkable amount of COVID-related data. At the heart of this trove has been a well-maintained list of literally every documented case of COVID — listed by county, age, and gender, and replete with information about whether the patient had recently traveled, had visited the ER, had been hospitalized, and had had any known contact with other Floridians. To my knowledge, Florida has been the only state in the union that has published this kind of data.
One of the data fields within Florida’s enormous set is called “Event Date.” This field contains the first known date that could possibly be associated with a given infection, and it was recorded to help doctors and epidemiologists investigate when a given patient might have caught the virus, calculate from whom they might have caught it, and interrogate how long they may have been infectious. Early on in the pandemic, when there was not nearly enough testing to go around, the “Event Date” data was particularly useful because it allowed the state to distinguish the date on which a patient first started expressing COVID symptoms — which could be nearly any symptom of illness. Shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, cough, runny nose, sore muscles, and low oxygen saturation — and the date a patient was formally tested.
From the start, Florida made this impressively detailed data set available to everyone — even to reporters. And this, really, is where the story starts. In May 2020, reporters from the Miami Herald downloaded the data and searched specifically for the earliest dates in the “Event Date” field, which were listed as December 2019. They took this to imply that COVID had been spreading in Florida months before any case had been recognized or recorded in the Unites States. Falsely sensing a scoop, the Herald began sending inquiries concerning this “discrepancy” to the Florida Department of Health.
Naturally, the Department of Health found many of these inquiries impossible to answer, given that the correct response is no more satisfying than “well, the data are messy.” Some of the December “Event Date” variables were the result of data-entry mistakes. Some reflected chronically ill or elderly patients who had been exhibiting “COVID symptoms” — which, again, for the DOH’s purpose here, means basically any symptom of illness — for many months before being diagnosed. And some were the result of no “Event Date” being recorded at all (this is known as a “null” value), which prompted the system to default to an “earliest possible date” option of “12/31/2019 4:00:00 PM.”
To this day, you can download Florida’s case-line data and see 21 cases of COVID that, despite having been identified between March 2020 and December 2020, feature a December 2019 “Event Date.” To anyone who understands data, these results are clearly the product of the system having assigned a non-null default value when no data has been entered. To the Miami Herald, however, these results hinted at scandal. Even now, when its reporters know beyond any doubt that their initial instincts were wrong, the Herald continues to tell its readers that these entries serve as “evidence of community spread potentially months earlier than previously reported.” This is not true.
Which brings us to Rebekah Jones. When, last year, the Herald brought its false “scoop” to the attention of the Florida Department of Health, the DOH did what any serious data operation would do: It ordered an audit. Aware that a single data field, “Event Date,” was pushing reporters to erroneous conclusions, the department temporarily stopped reporting it while it made sure its information was correct. The entire process took 48 hours. Florida state epidemiologist Dr. Carina Blackmore ordered the Event Data field be disabled in the public-facing dashboard; an audit was performed on the underlying data; the data were reviewed and approved; and then the field was re-enabled. It was routine work, performed in a reasonable amount of time.
At the time of the audit, Rebekah Jones was working on the Florida COVID dashboard — which, remember, was nothing more than a website that displayed copies of other people’s work — as well as collaborating with several other dashboard-type projects that, like the website she ran at DOH, relied on Florida’s data exports. Naturally, for Florida’s team to temporarily disable the export process would be inconvenient for Jones, and so, when the call came from her superiors to, Jones replied, “This is the wrong call.” Today, Jones has spun this response into an endless series of aspersions and calumnies, but it is obvious when one reviews the evidence that her reluctance was less about a concern for data accuracy or transparency and more about making sure her projects were not disrupted.
Inconsistent, inaccurate, or misleading data have been a feature of COVID reporting in nearly every state in the country over the past 15 months. Most states have struggled through reporting pauses, mismatched data, and audits that have suddenly increased or decreased COVID cases or deaths. In every other state, messy data have been taken in stride. It is only in Florida that every data hiccup is blown into a conspiracy of corruption and intrigue. Why? Because only in Florida did an employee who had nothing whatsoever to do with the production of that data decide to lie relentlessly about its veracity.