Florida Health Department manager told to delete coronavirus data is ousted

She said she was offered a settlement and the option to resign in lieu of being fired.
Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard
Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard [ Florida Department of Health ]
Published May 19, 2020|Updated May 21, 2020

One day before a top Florida Department of Health data manager lost her role maintaining the state’s COVID-19 data, she objected to the removal of records showing people had symptoms or positive tests before the cases were announced, according to internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis said she had been fired.

According to the emails, department staff gave the order shortly after reporters requested the same data from the agency on May 5. The data manager, Rebekah Jones, complied with the order, but not before she told her supervisors it was the “wrong call.”

Related: DeSantis reveals harassment charge against fired data manager, but questions remain

By the next morning, control over the data was given to other employees, according to an email Jones posted Friday on a public listserv. Jones, the department’s geographic information systems manager, wrote that she was no longer handling questions about the department’s “Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard.” She implied her removal was an act of retribution.

Jones said Tuesday that she was offered a settlement and the option to resign in lieu of being fired, effective May 26.

The dashboard that Jones managed is the best official source for in-depth data on how the deadly pandemic is moving through the state. Studying it is the surest way to know where outbreaks are growing and where testing is being done. Without access to the data, Floridians would have to rely on the word of officials and politicians without being able to verify for themselves.

Along with the dashboard, the department releases the same data, with only slightly more information, in daily reports, as well as in another format that allows for easier data analysis.

In her Friday email to subscribers of a COVID data listserv, Jones said she was reassigned on May 5 “[f]or reasons beyond my division’s control” and warned that whoever took over may be less straightforward.

“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.

“They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data.”

Jones also told CBS12 in Tallahassee on Monday that she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen” the state.

When asked during a Tuesday news conference about Jones’ public email detailing her reassignment, DeSantis said he did not know who she was but that he had been shown an email that Jones sent to her supervisor, apologizing.

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His spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, wrote in an email to reporters after the news conference that 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.”

Ferré's email included the email that DeSantis referenced. Sent Saturday, Jones told her supervisor that her comments about the employees replacing her had been misconstrued.

“What I meant when I said I don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away,” Jones wrote to her supervisor. “Is this one of those stupid things I shouldn’t have said?”

Still, there was much DeSantis didn’t address. Why was Jones instructed to take data down, as shown in the emails? Why was she taken off the dashboard and later terminated? He then left the conference as reporters shouted follow-up questions.

Emails sent within the department on May 4 indicate a busy timeline leading up to Jones’ reassignment.

That day, according to the Miami Herald, reporters contacted the department to ask about the “EventDate” field of data, which showed when people first reported coronavirus symptoms or positive test results. Some people had listed dates as early as January 1, indicating people reported symptomatic or tested positive much earlier than when cases were confirmed in March. It is unclear when the state learned about those cases, or when the people were tested.

Sometime that day, the column vanished from the “Person Cases” data, which lists anonymized records for every confirmed case in Florida. The Palm Beach Post reported the disappearance the next day, May 5.

The Tampa Bay Times automatically checks for changes in the data and archives new updates. Shortly before 10:12 a.m on May 4., data still included the EventDate field, showing records with listed dates that people reported symptoms as early as January 1. By 3:02 p.m., the column was gone.

For much of the next day, May 5, the column was either missing or empty, with every row listing “None.” Finally, it returned shortly before 8:02 p.m.

Times reporters asked Health Department spokesman Alberto Moscoso that day why the data disappeared. Two days later, he said, “This field continues to be represented on the Department’s COVID-19 Dashboard.”

Moscoso did not reply to requests for comment Tuesday.

According to internal emails reviewed by the Times, Department of Health I.T. Director Craig Curry emailed Rebekah Jones just before 5 p.m. on May 4. He cited Dr. Carina Blackmore, director for the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection.

“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,” Curry wrote.

The tables in the PDF documents did not include the column of data showing when symptoms were first reported, only the “Case Date” — the date the state recorded and confirmed the case.

“This is the wrong call,” Jones replied minutes later.

A few minutes later, she emailed Curry again. “Case line data is down.”

Then, just after 6 p.m., the I.T. director emailed both Jones and Dr. Blackmore. “Re-enable for now please.”

Jones replied, “10-4.”

Neither Dr. Blackmore nor Curry replied to requests for comment.

Shortly before DeSantis’ Tuesday news conference, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide office, released an open letter to the governor, requesting top health officials appear before the Cabinet next week.

Fried wrote that Jones’ reported reassignment and forced resignation "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.”

In a video news conference following DeSantis’ remarks, state Senate Democrats criticized the decision to fire Jones. They argued it was an act of political retribution.

“(Jones) was a brave woman who refused to fudge the numbers and she was punished for it, and that’s wrong,” Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said in response to a question about the data manager.

According to the Syracuse University alumni magazine, Jones joined the Department of Health in 2018. She worked for emergency response teams after hurricanes Michael and Dorian before becoming GIS manager in November 2019. Jones graduated from Syracuse before earning a master’s degree in geography at Louisiana State University and then teaching and working towards a Ph.D. at Florida State University, according to a resume posted to Florida State’s website.

Jones, 30, built the dashboard “from scratch,” she told the magazine in March. Through early May, she had provided information and updates on the tool to researchers and journalists, including Times reporters.

“If you look at our data services, there’s a lot of publicly available data, because it’s critical information,” Jones in April told a blog by Esri, the company that creates software used by the department.

“We would much rather the public or the press have the data that we’ve triple checked than to scrape the web trying to count cases or have a research group or university create a model with data that we haven’t verified," Jones said in the article. "The efforts in the academic community to do serious data modeling are crucial right now.”

The same dashboard received national attention when Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, first raved about it April 20.

“So I did spend about five hours going to every state website, and I will tell you that the - Florida’s Department of Health website is extraordinary,” Birx told reporters at the White House. “This is how we have to inform the American public, and this is where the American public will develop confidence in each of their counties and local governments.”

Jones said she was reassigned 15 days later.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect date on an email from Craig Curry to Rebekah Jones. It was sent May 4, not May 5.

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