Rebekah Jones, the fired Department of Health data expert who operated its COVID-19 dashboard, says she will file a whistleblower complaint and other suits against the state.
Jones says she was fired from the department (DOH) by the very person she had expressed a desire to file a complaint about in mid-May but never had the opportunity. After discussing her complaint with her supervisor and Florida Today taking her story public, she was fired for “repeated course of insubordination.”
“I’ve spoken to my lawyer and another lawyer, and in the next few weeks, we will be filing that and others,” Jones said.
The ousted data manager, whose claim as a data scientist has been contested by state officials, announced the news Thursday in a conversation with Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications Dean Emeritus, David Rubin.
Her complaint, as initially planned, would have addressed the way case data was handled and removed from the department’s public records, and specific people in the office that she said were taking unethical actions, including DOH Deputy Secretary of Health Shamarial Roberson, who fired her.
Central to Jones’ firing is what she says was her denial to manipulate data showing which counties met the state’s reopening criteria. She has accused Roberson of asking her to change data and the department of replacing her with an outside vendor after her refusal.
“They started changing the criteria. They moved the goalposts. They exempted rural counties completely from the entire criteria, which to me made no sense,” she said. “I don’t know why you would have a statewide criteria to say it’s safe to open and only apply it to a third or a half of the counties.”
Some counties didn’t meet the criteria because there was not enough testing there or they had a rising number of cases. Others had unfavorable or not enough hospital data, particularly rural counties.
Displaying cooked data on the extent of the virus she feared would give Floridians a false sense of security and lead to more cases and deaths. With the state experiencing record days of new cases, including 5,004 Thursday, and Gov. Ron DeSantis blaming the rise in part on an “erosion of social distancing,” Jones says her fears are playing out.
Since June 5, Florida has been in Phase Two of three, which includes allowing 100% capacity at retailers and mass gatherings of 50 or less. It also enables bars and movie theaters to reopen.
“There are legitimate social and economic reasons to maybe start reopening that the data doesn’t support,” Jones said. “And it would be fine if you said that, but changing the data to make it look that way is not something I was comfortable with, and I said more people are going to die because of this and I don’t want to be a part of it.”
Although she never got to file the complaint over the dashboard, she had submitted a previous complaint over the state’s handling of polling precincts during this year’s presidential primary election. She had compiled a list for the Division of Emergency Management of where the state could move polling places located in or near nursing homes, but individual counties were ultimately left to make that call as she says her list was never distributed.
Jones also said she would speak to two U.S. House committees, including one Friday.
On Tuesday, Jones tweeted that workers in DOH say they were instructed this week to delete cases and deaths to make it look like the pandemic was improving in Florida. But DeSantis slammed that claim as a “conspiracy bandwagon” when asked about it in Hialeah Wednesday.
That’s not the first time he’s accused the media of pulling out their tin foil hats regarding Jones’ story. His administration has disputed her story and whether she is a data scientist. DeSantis last month accused the national media of latching onto the story because claims Florida would become the next Italy of the pandemic never came true.
“Maybe it’s that there are black helicopters circling the Department of Health,” he said. “If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.”
When asked if she would author a book about the saga, Jones said she’s always wanted to finish writing one.
“I think that there’s more that I’ve learned than is worthy of a news article that if a publisher wants to reach out to me and write about, abso-fuckin-lutely,” she said.