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Researchers, Lawmakers Demand Answers After State Ousts COVID-19 Data Manager

Health department data manager Rebekah Jones said she was forced to resign for resisting requests to delete coronavirus data. The state defends the decision, accusing her of insubordination. Gov. Ron DeSantis (pictured) called it a non-issue.
Governor's Press Office
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Researchers and elected officials are demanding answers from the state amid reports that it fired a scientist who was managing Florida's COVID-19 dashboard for "refusing to manipulate data."

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked with a University of South Florida researcher who depends on that state data for her work.

Lori Collins, a research associate professor with USF Libraries and School of Geosciences, is one of many researchers who worked with ousted scientist Rebekah Jones when she managed the Florida COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboardas a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Manager for the Florida Department of Health.

Collins helps manage a coronavirus information hub for USF that serves the Tampa Bay area and said health department data is one of the most important factors in that GIS platform.

She said she can’t speak to what may have caused Jones’ apparent problems with the department but said she always has had positive experiences working with her.

“From my experience she was extremely professional, she was transparent, she committed to working on this project,” Collins said.

Collins said Jones was always good about communicating with researchers who had questions about evolving data or technical issues with obtaining it.

That's why she was confused when researchers received an email from Jones on May 6 that said she was taking a long vacation after working “64 days straight with no day off,” and that furthermore, “the GIS office no longer manages or maintains the dashboard.”

Jones would later go on to confirm that she was relieved from her dashboard duties a day earlier on May 5.

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Within days of receiving that email, Collins said the state dashboard crashed and researchers began experiencing a number of problems trying to pull data.

“All of us were emailing everybody we knew, like, ‘What's going on?’, because we've got major research projects that are also relying on this data as well, it's not just our hub at USF, it's other researchers using our daily data in particular that we're pulling in,” Collins explained.

Collins said she eventually heard back from the state that the Florida Department of Emergency Management had taken over the dashboard and they were working on the glitches, but it still wasn't clear what happened with Jones.

Fast-forward to May 15, when Jones sends another email to researchers and other subscribers of a COVID-19 data listserv, reiterating that the GIS office was no longer managing the COVID-19 Dashboard.

“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,” Jones wrote. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

Those words alarmed Collins.

“When I got that email, the first thing our team did was say, ‘Get in there and any database – even tabular parts of the data that we weren’t necessarily monitoring, like grab it, grab everything, just get it as fast as you can,’ – because you don't know, that was a very strange email,” Collins said.

This week Jones told CBS-12 in West Palm Beach she was fired from the health department after she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

And the Tampa Bay Times obtained state emails from the beginning of the month that seem to show department workers asking Jones to do things with data she didn't agree with.

According to the Times, the emails involve department staff asking Jones to remove records showing people had COVID-19 symptoms or positive tests before the cases were announced. Jones complied, but told supervisors it was “the wrong call.”

All of this news further concerns Collins. The co-Director of USF’s Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections said transparent data is essential both in terms of combating the pandemic now and ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself in the future.

“These kinds of things have real impact on policy and on decisions and on how people feel about things, you know, is it okay to go out, is it okay to reopen,” Collins said.

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Prior to a Tuesday evening press conference when DeSantis briefly addressed the issue, the only response from the state had been his spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré telling the Miami Herald that the GIS office was continuing to oversee the dashboard despite Jones’ removal and that the state would continue to report accurate information.

When a reporter asked DeSantis about the situation at the press conference, he called it a “non-issue.”

The governor said he didn't know who Rebekah Jones was, but that his staff showed him an email she apparently sent to her supervisor after her May 15 message to the listserv, saying she may have said something that was misrepresented.

Aguirre Ferré shared the email with the Times and other reporters:

“What I meant when I said I don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away,” Jones wrote to her supervisor. “Is this one of those stupid things I shouldn’t have said?”

Ferré also said that Jones “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”

Still, DeSantis and his office left many questions unanswered, with DeSantis quickly diverting from the topic at the press conference and walking off-stage as reporters asked follow-ups.

The state's response comes after Democratic lawmakers called for investigations into Jones’ removal.

“Amidst pressure to ‘reopen’ the state regardless of data and science, transparency is vital to keeping our neighbors safe and ensuring that they have confidence that our government is reporting honestly,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa). “I am requesting immediate answers as to why Ms. Jones was fired and how the State intends to fully report all COVID-19 public health data without censorship by the Department of Health or anyone else.”

“I request that you immediately direct your Chief Inspector General to conduct an expedited investigation into the allegations reported in the Tampa Bay Times and other news outlets, concerning data manipulation or suppression, and the removal of Rebekah Jones,” state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez wrote in a letter he sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

As for Lori Collins, she said her team at USF will continue to share health department data on its hub and she hopes that information continues to be complete and accurate.

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Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.