The Florida Department of Health says someone hacked into a system used to send emergency communications earlier this month and sent an unauthorized message to members of the State Emergency Response Team responsible for coordinating public health and medical response.
The Nov. 10 message, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, urged recipients to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”
As of the date of the message, Florida had reported 17,460 coronavirus-related deaths among Florida residents and non-residents.
“The fact that someone would use an emergency alert system for their own purpose, whatever it is, is both irresponsible and unlawful,” said Jason Mahon, spokesman the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Mahon said the state had not identified the person who sent the text message but said Florida Department of Health officials had contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement “to look into this matter, and we expect that the individual who sent the message will be held accountable.”
A spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was not able to say Friday whether her department had opened any investigation into the incident.
The message appears to have been sent to people on the contact list for the state’s Emergency Support Function 8, one of 18 specialized groups that comprise the state’s emergency response personnel. Group 8, which is led by the Department of Health, coordinates public health and medicine response in emergencies.
Mahon did not respond to additional questions about who receives messages from that emergency alert account, or about whether the department believed the message sender was from within the department.
He also did not respond to questions about what, if anything, had been done to better secure the emergency alert system against future hacks, nor whether there have been other instances where the system had been hacked.
While the intent of the person behind the text message is not clear, it comes as Gov. Ron DeSantis has opted to keep the Sunshine State open for business even as the state has seen a significant rise in coronavirus cases that is expected to surge further in the coming weeks.
DeSantis has lifted most of the coronavirus-related restrictions he’d imposed and has stymied the ability of local governments to enforce their own mask mandates.
Meanwhile, the state’s top health official, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, appears to have been largely sidelined in regards to public messaging on the coronavirus pandemic and has not appeared at one of the governor’s news conferences in months.
The Department of Health’s Twitter account, which had been posting regular reminders about precautions like mask-wearing, hand washing, social distancing and protecting the elderly and vulnerable amid the pandemic, has largely stopped such messages on Twitter in recent months.
“There seems to be a silence order throughout the Department of Health and state government,” said Jay Wolfson, a senior associate dean at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine. He said there’s been a “mysterious end to any ‘science-based’ state messaging.”
“It appears to be consistent with a policy that less accurate information is better and that transparent knowledge is not of value to public behavior,” Wolfson said.
In recent weeks, DeSantis has largely avoided questions from reporters but has posted video messages discussing progress on coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics.
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