The dashboard has been a one-stop shop for researchers, the media and the public to access and download tables of COVID-19 cases, testing and death data to analyze freely.
Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed back Wednesday on the assertion that the firing of a Health Department data manager was an insidious act of data suppression as Florida seeks to march toward normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Rebekah Jones, who claims she built the COVID-19 data dashboard, said she was fired because she would not change data to support plans to reopen.
Florida’s coronavirus tracker had been lauded by the likes of Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. Jones’ dismissal captured national headlines and ignited concerns about how transparent the state was with its coronavirus figures.
"Our data is available. Our data is transparent. Any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun," DeSantis said.
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Jones came up Wednesday after DeSantis and Vice President Mike Pence wrapped up a visit to an Orlando senior center to deliver personal protective equipment, just ahead of a tourism roundtable. A reporter began to ask why the state asked Jones to remove certain data when DeSantis interrupted.
DeSantis dismissed Jones’ authority on the issue, saying she is "not a data scientist. She's not the chief architect of our web portal. That is a false statement."
"She didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors," DeSantis added. "She was dismissed because of that and because of a bunch of different reasons."
DeSantis didn’t expound on these reasons, but further justified her firing because she was arrested on two cyberstalking and one sexual cyberharassment charges in July, first degree misdemeanors that can carry up to a year in jail.
"I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on," DeSantis said. "I have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment."
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Jones, 30, faces trial for just one cyberstalking charge.
In addition to the stalking and cyberstalking charges, Jones over the past two years has been arrested on charges of robbery, trespassing, criminal mischief and contempt of court — all stemming from a complicated relationship with a Florida State University student in the class she was teaching as a graduate assistant at the time. Those prior charges were dropped.
Both said the relationship was short-lived. The man, whose name was redacted in charging documents, accuses her in the July case of "revenge porn" and harassing with hostile messages.
In 2018, she called him out of a class and began fighting with him, according to the police report. He said she snatched his iPhone and made off with it when he tried to call 911. That led to the robbery charge, a felony. She also was charged with violating a restraining order that he had taken out against her. FSU police issued a campus-wide "trespass warning" against her in 2018, according to police records. The incident with the phone led to the trespassing charge.
DeSantis Wednesday stood by the data put out by the state health department, which guides when aspects of the state’s economy can reopen.
"I was the No. 1 landing spot from tens of thousands of people leaving the No. 1 hotzone in the world to come to my state," he said, adding how despite continuing visitors from out of state, Florida had not experienced as many coronavirus deaths as New York or Italy.
"We’ve succeeded, and I think that people don’t want to recognize it because it challenges their narrative, it challenges their assumption, so they’ve got to try to find a boogeyman. Maybe it’s that there are black helicopters circling the Department of Health. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you," he said.
Jones, who until Monday was a Department of Health Geographic Information Systems manager, last week sent an email to a group of researchers and data users in which she said she had been removed from her role in charge of the dashboard as of May 5.
"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," she wrote.
DeSantis said that what Jones' meant in that email is that the team "are busy and can't answer every single email."
DeSantis indicated that Jones was simply "tired" and "needed a break from working two months straight."
Jones was not available for comment Wednesday when contacted BY FLORIDA TODAY, which broke the story.
Data user comments on the DOH website as well as those researchers with whom FLORIDA TODAY spoke indicate Jones was a responsive professional, and was widely praised for her work. Some researchers feared her dismissal could mean that Tallahassee might censor the data to support the governor's push to re-open the state.
"Rebekah, Thank you very much. Again, we appreciate the work your team is doing. Be safe," one user wrote.
Emails obtained by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and shared with FLORIDA TODAY, Jones appeared to push back on demands by her superiors to make the data less accessible.
"Let’s get the web populated in a way that doesn’t expose the raw data to those who don’t need access," wrote Director for Division of Disease Control and Health Protection director Carina Blackmore in a May 5 email.
This followed emailed instructions on May 4 from IT director Craig Curry that "Per Dr. Blackmore, disable the ability to export the data to files from the dashboard immediately. We need to ensure that dates (date fields) in all objects match their counterpart on the PDF line list published.
Jones replied that stating this was the "wrong call."
But instructions to revoke access to data came earlier in the day on May 4 as Jones first wrote an email to Curry expressing concern over such a move.
"I'm not pulling our primary resources for coronavirus data because he wants to stick it to journalists and make them copy and past from the tables in the pdfs," she wrote in an email to colleagues. It is unclear who the "he" Jones refers to is.
"If it's in the dashboard it's public. Period. There's no way around that," she wrote.
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That access was revoked and then brought back last week.
Neither the governor's office or Department of Health have answered why access to the ability to export data from the dashboard was restricted for several days. There was also a column of data that disappeared and then came back.
"Whenever you have data disappearing and coming back, that causes integrity issues," says Jennifer Larsen, a researcher at the University of Central Florida's LabX.
The data also changed format over time. Initially it was available at one internet portal, but then was split into separate portals without warning, these portals then changed address over the last several weeks. This again, Larsen explains, causes problems for researchers trying to validate historical data.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, several Florida lawmakers and the chair of the Florida Democratic Party have called for an investigation in Jones' dismissal.
Tampa Bay Congresswoman Kathy Castor penned a letter to the governor and Surgeon General Scott Rivkes, demanding the state "fully report all COVID-19 public health data without censorship."
Reporting by FLORIDA TODAY watchdog reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon, who broke the original story, was used in this story. FLORIDA TODAY is owned by Gannett, which also owns The Palm Beach Post.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.