Orlando Sentinel: Manager of Florida’s coronavirus dashboard says she was removed after disputing order to ‘censor’ data

May 19, 2020
In The News

The manager of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, which provides detailed information on cases of the highly contagious disease, says she was removed from her job after objecting to an order to “censor” coronavirus data.

Rebekah Jones, who led a team of Florida Department of Health data scientists and public health officers, announced that she was no longer in her position as of May 5.

Her removal came as Gov. Ron DeSantis began reopening the state, vowing he would closely monitor the numbers on coronavirus cases and deaths as restaurants and businesses came back online.

Jones told CBS12 News in an email 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,’” the TV station reported.

The allegations by Jones were first reported by Florida Today.

Helen Aguirre Ferré, communications director for DeSantis, said she didn’t have details about Jones’ job status, but added that Jones “was important in building the website, but she was part of a team” that continues working on it.

“To the best of my knowledge, the website continues to be updated daily," she said, “and the information is accurate and publicly accessible.”

 

The day before Jones was removed, according to internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, “officials directed her to remove data from public view showing that Floridians had reported symptoms of the disease before cases were officially announced.”

Data in the “Event Date” field showed people reporting coronavirus symptoms as early as Jan. 1. That information disappeared by May 5, the Palm Beach Post reported at the time.

The order to remove that data came after reporters requested that information from the agency. Jones complied with the order, the Times reported, but told her supervisors it was the “wrong call.” She was removed by the next day.

In another email to users of the state’s data portal, Jones warned about how the data dashboard would be run now that she was gone. It was unclear who has been in charge of the dashboard since May 5.

“I helped them get it back running a few times but I have no knowledge about their plans, what data they are now restricting, what data will be added and when, or any of that,” 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. However, I cannot provide any insight now or going forward.

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

Researchers who have relied on access to underlying raw data from the dashboard said they interpret Jones’ removal as an indication of government censorship.

“We would not accept this lack of transparency for any other natural disaster, so why are we willing to accept it here?” Jennifer Larsen, a researcher at the University of Central Florida’s LabX, told Florida Today.

The governor has been criticized for not revealing more information about COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Several news media outlets filed suit for the information shortly before the Department of Health released it.

Democratic congressmen Darren Soto and Ted Deutch responded to the reports on Twitter.