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Coronavirus: Florida scientist was fired for refusing to 'manipulate' COVID-19 data

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon
Florida Today
Walton Sun

The scientist who created Florida's COVID-19 data portal wasn't just removed from her position on May 5, she was fired on Monday by the Department of Health, she said, for refusing to manipulate data.

Rebekah Jones said in an email to FLORIDA TODAY that she single-handedly created two applications in two languages, four dashboards, six unique maps with layers of data functionality for 32 variables covering a half a million lines of data. Her objective was to create a way for Floridians and researchers to see what the COVID-19 situation was in real time.

Then, she was dismissed.

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"I worked on it alone, sixteen hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened I'll probably never get paid for," she wrote in an email, confirming that she had not just been reassigned on May 5, but fired from her job as Geographic Information Systems manager for the Florida Department of Health.

After FLORIDA TODAY first reported Jones' removal from her position in charge of the Florida COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard she created, she confirmed, as reported by CBS-12 in West Palm Beach that she was fired because she was ordered to censor some data, but refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

She provided no further details.

In an email last Friday to researchers and other data users, Jones warned that with her removal changes were likely coming to the accessibility and transparency of the dashboard data.

"They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data," she wrote.

Researchers who saw the email reacted with shock and dismay, suggesting it could be evidence that the Gov. Ron De Santis' government was censoring information tosupport the case for re-opening Florida.

Lucky Tran a Biologist and public health communicator at Columbia University on Twitter reacted to the news in a series of tweets. "When politicians censor scientists and manipulate the numbers, the rest of us suffer," he wrote.

US Congresswoman representing Tampa Bay, Kathy Castor wrote: "Floridians will not feel safe in opening up without transparency."

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Governor Ron DeSantis' spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, issued a statement to the Miami Herald, saying: “The Florida COVID-19 Dashboard was created by the Geographic Information System (GIS) team in the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection at the Florida Department of Health. Although Rebekah Jones is no longer involved, the GIS team continues to manage and update the Dashboard providing accurate and important information that is publicly accessible.”

But emails from Jones through April showed that Jones was the one responding to feedback from researchers in a bid to improve and update her product. Jones told FLORIDA TODAY that she alone was responsible for "every line of code."

In a May 5 email in which she announced the launch of a Spanish-language version of the dashboard, Jones wrote: "Please be patient as we get all this connected and running smoothly, and do let me know if you see any errors." It was sent the same day she was removed from her role managing of the dashboard.

For 60-days Jones said she never took a day off, not even when a powerful April 12 Easter tornado leveled her parents' home in Southeast Mississippi. A GoFundMe page was set up to help her family recover. Luckily, her mother survived. Her father, a truck driver, was in Texas at the time.

"Sorry if I’ve been a little slow to respond these last few days," she wrote to data users in an email just 3 days later reporting updates to how data was organized, and the inclusion of county-level race data.

Jones provided detailed updates in emails every few days, often technical and always responsive to user feedback. At the time was dismissed, she was working on making historical data more accessible to users.

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On April 25, Jones provided an explanation to why the data set would go from morning and evening daily updates to just once per day.

"We’re gearing up to provide more analytics and data, and would not be able to process the full dataset twice daily with the staff we have," she wrote.

"We have been directed to start tracking data related to reopening, and it is consuming a lot of staff hours on very short notice."

Days later she would be removed from the position entirely and her data users sounded the alarm that government might be censoring science.

Jones had worked with the Department of Health as a geospatial analyst and then a Geographic Information System (GIS) manager since obtaining her doctorate in Geography from Florida State University in 2018.

She holds a masters of science degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University and a bachelors in Journalism and Geography from Syracuse University.

The Department of Health has so far not replied to request for comment.

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

This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.