A former state data manager who raised questions about Florida’s COVID-19 data after being ousted from her role emailed reporters again Monday evening after a week of silence.
Rebekah Jones sought to flag discrepancies in the Department of Health’s (DOH) data for people tested for the novel coronavirus, but not before describing the last two weeks as “some strange sort of hell.”
On May 19, Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ spokeswoman emailed reporters to say Jones was fired for a “repeated course of insubordination” and her public remarks. However, Jones claims she was wrongfully terminated for refusing to manipulate data to validate the state’s case for reopening.
The following day, the Governor joined the fray, saying that she faced criminal charges for cyberstalking and sexual harassment that Jones denies.
The former DOH geographic data manager decried foreign tabloids that published allegations of the criminal charges.
“As a private American citizen, they called me an adulterer, predator, sexual deviant, temptress, seductress, stalker, harasser, sex-obsessed whore and just about every misogynistic thing a man could write about any woman without a grain of truth to it, but get away with if the woman they’re defaming is the slightest bit attractive,” Jones wrote in the Monday email, adding that “false stories” about her private life and children were “sickening.”
“We live in a sick world, full of cowardly, greedy people who don’t care about the truth.”
The truth to Jones included miscalculated data such as the average ages of people tested. Chief among them was that the total count of people tested, or persons under investigation (PUI), for the disease was about 877,000 Monday, according to the DOH’s records. However, that falls well short of the 1 million people the department claims has been tested.
“The really important part here is that, if the PUI data is now correct and only counting people and not tests, then where the dashbaord (sic) says ‘Number of People Tested’ on the testing tab is wrong or a flat-out lie,” Jones wrote.
Data she shared labeled for April 30 showed a total of 384,153 PUIs for that date, matching the 382,966 individuals whose results DOH had received and the 1,187 still awaiting results, according to the department. Data from April 30 was the most recent data she included in the email.
One of the state’s suggested metrics for reopening is that either new COVID-19 cases or positive tests as a percentage of total tests should decrease during a two-week period. Calhoun, Collier, Gadsden, Glades, Hamilton, Hardee, Hendry, Liberty, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties would not or barely meet each counties’ positivity threshold to advance in reopening based on the state’s record of people tested, she said.
The 1 million people DOH show on its dashboard and daily reports as tested, Jones feared, is actually the total number of tests issued, artificially lowering the positivity rate as much as from 6.5% to 5.5% statewide. Some people are tested multiple times, particularly those who have tested positive as officials periodically check to see if they no longer have the virus.
Jones’ “team” also compiled a timeline of events since she said she was asked on April 24 to develop new data for the state’s reopening plan.
The timeline includes an exchange from April 26 when Jones claims DOH’s deputy secretary of health, Dr. Shamarial Roberson, asked Jones to change counties that didn’t meet a 10% positivity benchmark to meet the criteria. According to Jones, Roberson said “We can’t tell Jackson and Franklin counties they can’t open, but Miami-Dade and Broward that they can,” adding that it would be a “political nightmare.”
Jones also highlighted the fact that of the 2,543 people listed as dead from the disease, only 2,009 were also listed as hospitalized.
“They’re reporting that 20% of the people who have died in Florida weren’t even hospitalized,” she said. “That needs to be explained and investigated. “
However, only 345 fatal cases were listed as never hospitalized, about 14%. The remaining 189 were listed as unknown for their hospitalization status.
Last month, DeSantis criticized the media for carrying the story after a reporter asked about Jones’ firing. He shared allegations published in The Capitolist a mere hour before the press availability.
“There has been a targeted campaign to diminish my role in creating and managing the data and dashboard to preemptively reduce the impact of what I have to say should an investigation of DOHs actions materialize,” Jones wrote. “My role was well documented by Syracuse University, ESRI, and others long before the referenced events occurred, and was praised by the Governor’s office, the White House, and media from across the world.”
State health officials have strenuously denied any issue with the information’s accuracy as DeSantis seeks to make a data-driven case for a step-by-step reopening of the state’s battered economy following safer-at-home orders.
Jones has not alleged any tampering with data on deaths, hospital symptom surveillance, hospitalizations for COVID-19, numbers of new confirmed cases, or overall testing rates — core elements of any assessment of the outbreak and of federal criteria for reopening. And she acknowledges Florida has been relatively transparent — for which she herself claims some credit — and relatively successful in controlling the pandemic.
The ousted data manager also said she opposed how health officials decided to exempt rural counties below 75,000 population from more stringent criteria for reopening — such as showing a downward trajectory of new cases or case positivity in the past 14 days. However, federal guidelines allow states to compute criteria at the state level or to tailor a regional approach that takes into account the severity of the outbreak in regions.
Florida’s small rural counties have had fewer cases and deaths. Franklin, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hardee, Holmes, Lafayette, Liberty, Okeechobee and Taylor counties have had no deaths. In such counties, a favorable 14-day trend could easily be upended by a small — but containable — spike in cases.
Asking for privacy for her family in her Monday email, Jones also shared a link to a GoFundMe she said her sister set up to help her raise money for a new computer and software until she finds employment. She also noted she had lost job offers since her firing when her story first broke.
“My team is exploring all possible legal avenues regarding my wrongful termination, defamation by DOH, and whistle-blower protection, whilst being mindful of the high likelihood of investigations into the state’s actions and the possibility of further retaliation,” Jones wrote.
Both the American Association of Geographers and the American Statistical Association have published letters in her support.
Jones, who called her firing a “badge of honor” during a May appearance on CNN with Chris Cuomo, explained that she spent five days after the story broke hiding from the public and the press. But by Monday, she felt compelled to reach out to reporters again.
“Peace and quiet at the expense of other people’s lives stirs the soul, and no one truly rests or finds solace when they know the silence around them was paid for with the blood of others,” Jones wrote. “I became depressed, doubtful about my future, and afraid to go out of my house, lest some journalist be waiting outside or someone recognize me and spit at me again.”