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Florida COVID-19 dashboard manager raises red flags about accuracy of state data after being fired

Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Cap News/WFLA) – Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard, which has been praised and celebrated by officials in Washington in recent months, is now at the center of a controversy after the firing of the woman who designed and managed it.

Rebekah Jones alleges she was fired for being too transparent. The architect and former manager of the state’s coronavirus dashboard made the disturbing claim in a letter to her former team.

In the letter that was reported on by Florida Today, Jones says her office is no longer managing the dashboard and is not involved in the publication, fixing of errors or answering of questions.

She also warned she doesn’t know what the new team’s intentions are for data access.

“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,” Jones said in the email.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked about the firing during a Tuesday evening news conference. The governor said “I don’t know who she is” and dismissed the firing as a non-issue.

His office also released information disputing Jones’ claim, including an email she sent Saturday after receiving calls from a reporter.

“I said they’ve got a team working on it now and that what I meant when I said don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away, and that it was ridiculous that I managed to do it in the first place,” she said. “Is this one of those stupid thing I shouldn’t have said?”

The governor’s office released the full following statement on Jones and her dismissal:

Rebekah Jones’ duties were to display data obtained by the Department’s epidemiological staff. The team that created the graphics on the dashboard, which was made up by multiple people, received data that was provided by subject matter experts, including Senior Epidemiologists, Surveillance Epidemiologists, and a Senior Database Analyst.

Rebekah 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. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.

Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19. Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the Department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.

Please note that under Florida law correspondence sent to the Governor’s Office, which is not confidential or exempt pursuant to chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, is a public record made available upon request.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has called for a briefing on Jones’ firing at next week’s Florida Cabinet meeting.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) has also called for answers.

“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,” Castor said in a statement. “Floridians, scientists and public health experts need accurate and timely information regarding infections, testing, disparities and mortalities in order to make the best decisions about going to work, going to school and going out in public. The state’s lack of transparency around COVID-19 public health data is troubling and unwise. It is vital to help us keep our neighbors safe and that they have confidence that our government is reporting honestly.”

Pam Marsh, president of the First Amendment Foundation, calls the accusations made by Jones disheartening.

“How do we make decisions based on information that’s, A: inaccurate, and now we have this reason distrust it?” said Marsh.

Marsh also pointed out the timing of Jones’ firing as suspect.

In the email, Jones claims to have been let go on May 5, just one day after the first phase of the governor’s reopening plan went into effect.

“When the administration needs the data to show that the curve is not just flattening, but going down,” said Marsh.

We reached out to Jones via email and phone. We also contacted her on Facebook, but only received an automated message saying she was not doing interviews.

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