A former Florida state health employee who says she was dismissed from her position for refusing to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen” had multiple performance issues that led to her removal, according to Florida Department of Health officials.
Rebekah Jones, who worked as a data manager for Florida’s DOH, sent a May 15 email informing subscribers to the state’s COVID data listserv that she had been removed from the team overseeing the state’s data “for reasons beyond my control,” and implied that “accessibility and transparency” would suffer in her absence.
“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,” reads Jones’s May 15 to the public listserv.
Jones said she was reassigned on May 5, the same day that the Palm Beach Post reported that 171 positive COVID-19 cases, which were reported in January and February, had been removed from the dashboard. The data was offline for less than a day: According to a review of the dashboard by the Tampa Bay Times, the information — which Jones argued was deleted as part of a cover-up effort — was removed on the afternoon of May 4 and reinstated by the evening of May 5.
The Times also reported that Jones was asked by Department of Health I.T. director Craig Curry to “disable the ability to export the data to files from the dashboard” at the request of Dr. Carina Blackmore, the state epidemiologist and director for the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, who wanted to review the data’s veracity before restoring it to the dashboard.
“This is the wrong call,” Jones replied in an email to the request, before complying. Approximately an hour later, Curry gave Jones the go-ahead to “re-enable” the data. “10-4,” Jones replied.
Much of the mainstream political press gave credence to Jones’s claim that she was fired as an act of retaliation by her superiors. According to Jones’s version of events, she was reassigned from the data team over her refusal to cooperate with her superiors’ effort to manipulate COVID data — and was subsequently fired from the DOH for alerting the public to that effort in her email to the listserv. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide office, followed suit, calling the decision to fire Jones “extraordinarily dangerous to public.”
But Florida deputy health secretary Dr. Shamarial Roberson, who orchestrated the state’s expanded COVID-19 tracing force, told National Review that a request to take down and verify data is common, as reviews of the dashboard happen “every day.”
“That data is checked for quality assurance to ensure that it is correct,” she explained. “If the state epidemiologist made the determination that a data field wasn’t properly approved through the approval process, she has the discretion to take something down and quality review it. So data-quality review is always an ongoing process at the department, and senior epidemiologists, they can at their discretion, make that decision to review additional fields based on new information and other things.”
After Jones’s email announcing her reassignment — and the subsequent press storm implying that her superiors were engaged in a coverup — she misrepresented the contents of her email to the public listserv in a May 16 message to Curry, her supervisor.
Jones told Curry that her email to the listserv had been an innocuous message informing the public that she was taking a vacation because she “was tired and needed a break from working two months straight.” A copy of the original listserv email reviewed by National Review shows that Jones made no mention of fatigue or vacation; she instead announced that she had been taken off the data team and implied her transfer would harm the health department’s transparency.
“Is this one of those stupid things I shouldn’t have said?” Jones asked Curry, according to a copy of the email obtained by National Review. “I really don’t want this to be a story.”
Jones did publicly assert that she “built” the state’s coronavirus dashboard for a profile in the Syracuse University alumni magazine. “I started from scratch and decided what I thought was important,” Jones told Syracuse University, where she studied geography and journalism. The alumni post also claimed that Jones “initially consulted the global coronavirus map produced by Johns Hopkins University” to come up with the “basic idea.”
But the dashboard was not built by Jones and is not even proprietary to the Florida Department of Health. Instead, the department relied on a dashboard built by ArcGIS, a map-making software used by Johns Hopkins for its widely-cited coronavirus map. Jones was part of a team of three people who worked on updating the dashboard with new data.
Other outlets, including MSNBC and NPR, reported that Jones was a “scientist.” While Jones was enrolled for over two years at Florida State University in a geography Ph.D. program, a university spokesman told the Tampa Bay Times the school had not posted any degrees for her, and Jones’s personal blog shows she is not set to complete the doctorate until 2021.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, communications director for Florida governor Ron DeSantis, explained that Jones’s “function” was “to load the data into the graphics.”
“That is not an accurate assessment, that she built [the dashboard], she participated in putting the dashboard together, she played a role in the development of the website dashboard,” Ferré told National Review. “She’s not a content creator. She doesn’t she’s not a data analyst, she’s not an epidemiologist, she wouldn’t have access to the raw data, much less how to interpret the raw data of the information that she was receiving.”
Ferré added that it was Jones’s “insubordination that led to her dismissal,” and that her notice of termination was delivered on Monday.
“She was forever clashing with her team, because she was not a team player. She was erratic. She changed information without consulting with the epidemiological team or her supervisor, and, in short, she was insubordinate,” she explained. “She perceived that she had ownership of this dashboard, which is completely inaccurate.”
Jones did not respond to a request for comment about her dismissal. She told CBS12 on Monday that her removal was “not voluntary” and stemmed from her refusal to “censor” data.
DeSantis himself told reporters Tuesday that Jones was “not involved in collating any data,” and suggested the media was making a “bogeyman” out of the story.
In addition to misrepresenting the contents of her email to the public listserv and inflating her role in the DOH, Jones also published state COVID-19 data on her personal blog without going through the proper channels established to ensure their reliability.
“If you haven’t checked out my fantabulous online dashboard, officially the state’s public face of Florida’s coronavirus response, you should do so,” the March 30 blog post reads. The post breaks down the state’s coronavirus testing data by age — a feature that has not been made available on the state dashboard.
“I made some charts for the data that there’s simply no room on the dashboard for, so I’m presenting them here for your pleasure,” Jones explains, followed by her own personal analysis of the numbers.
It is unclear whether the data is accurate, as well as if Jones’s sharing of the data broke the law or violated her government contract. Roberson explained, however, that while data can be requested for public release, any “human subjects research” requires a review by a health department board, as well as a review of a data-use agreement by the appropriate data custodian, before public consumption.
“If this is tried and true and it is scientifically relevant, then that data is released through a data-sharing agreement, and that’s how we make data available,” she explained. “There’s a lot of ongoing projects throughout the state, with universities, with researchers from other states, so it is a regular process at the department to make different data available to the public in a very transparent way. But there is a protocol.”
While speaking to reporters on Tuesday, DeSantis also said that Jones should not have been working for the government in the first place because she is facing active criminal charges.
“I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on, because this was many months ago,” DeSantis stated. “I have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.”
Leon County court records filed in July 2019 show that Jones faces a misdemeanor charge of cyberstalking and a misdemeanor charge of sexual cyberharassment. In 2016, Jones was also arrested while working at Louisiana State University for battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.