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Coronavirus in Florida

Nikki Fried, Democratic lawmakers demand answers on dashboard data chief’s ouster

Jose Javier Rodriguez, Kathy Castor and Lois Frankel want an independent investigation.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Democratic lawmakers are demanding answers about why the data chief running Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard was removed.

Questions arose after Rebekah Jones, the data analyst behind a widely praised public health dashboard, was taken off the job, as reported by Florida Today.

“It has come to my attention that Dr. Rebekah Jones, the state employee responsible for the DOH’s COVID-19 dashboard, was not only involuntarily removed from her position after expressing concerns about an order she received to manipulate COVID-19 data, but was fired yesterday by the agency you oversee.” Fried wrote in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“These actions undermine public trust in our government, are extraordinarily dangerous to public health, and are absolutely inconsistent with the transparency and accuracy that Floridians expect and deserve during this pandemic.”

Fried wants Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, Director of the Division of Disease Control and Health Prevention Carina Blackmore and anyone else involved in the decision to pull Jones to provide an account to the Florida Cabinet, which meets May 28.

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The dashboard has won wide praise, including from the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for providing the public with easy access to information of the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, journalists, including Florida Politics, have raised concerns about frequent changes to the dashboard construction and occasional inconsistencies in data.

Jones has asserted she was taken off the job for pushing for the disclosure of more data and greater transparency.

“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,” she wrote in a message reported by Florida Today. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

Sen. Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, called for an Inspector General’s investigation into Jones’ removal and the potential manipulation of data.

“The public’s trust is perhaps the most important tool we have in combating the crisis we face,” Rodriguez wrote to DeSantis. “In the last 24 hours, however, Floridians have learned of allegations that a public health employee was involuntarily removed from her post because she wanted to maintain the integrity of information reported to the public on COVID-19. Further, the allegations are that such suppression or censorship was motivated by an effort to increase support for steps the Governor wished to or was undertaking. These allegations must be investigated fully and immediately.”

DeSantis said he knew nothing of the turn of events.

“I don’t know who she is,” he said during a Tuesday press briefing.

The Governor’s Office soon after sent out a comprehensive statement on the issue which suggested Jones was not giving a complete account.

“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,” the statement reads.

“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.”

Democratic members of Congress joined in putting pressure on the Republican Governor. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, put blame on DeSantis’ shoulders for prioritizing reopening Florida business over transparency regarding a public health crisis.

“Amid 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,” Castor wrote in a statement.

“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. 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.”

Added U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel in a tweet, “these actions are not only irresponsible — they’re downright dangerous. An independent investigation into these alarming reports is immediately necessary.”

She called the dashboard a vital resource for local government, the press and the public at large for fully understanding the pandemic.

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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