Going further than previous comments that led to her ouster this week, a former data manager for Florida’s Department of Health said Friday that a top official directed her to change data to downplay the threat of COVID-19 in rural counties leading up to the reopening of the state.
In text messages to the Tampa Bay Times, Rebekah Jones said the Deputy Secretary for Health, Dr. Shamarial Roberson, directed her to “manipulate” data used in the state’s plan to lift stay-at-home orders.
That reopening plan was first presented by Gov. Ron DeSantis during an April 29 news conference. Jones said the manipulated data was included in that presentation.
“Shamarial Roberson, Deputy Secretary (for) Health, asked me to manipulate the data to mislead the public to support reopening mostly rural counties after the preliminary plan was already drafted and about to be presented,” Jones said in the statement.
Jones wrote that she did not comply.
“Otherwise, I’d still have my job,” she wrote. Jones later appeared on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time on Friday night and slammed her former employers, saying they manipulated health data related to the pandemic.
“If refusing to mislead the public during a health crisis is insubordination, then I will wear that badge with honor,” Jones told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Dr. Roberson, in a statement provided Friday to the Times, categorically denied Jones’ claim.
“It is patently false to say that the Department of Health has manipulated any data,” she wrote.
Jones, 30, did not respond to questions from a reporter on specifics on which data she meant or how she was asked to change it. Jones said manipulated data was used for the reopening plan, provided by an outside vendor, but that she did not know who the vendor was.
Jones, the former geographic information sciences manager for the Department of Health, set off a political firestorm this week after posting a May 15 email where she said she had been removed from her role maintaining the state’s online display of COVID-19 data. The data lets the public review updated numbers on infections, deaths and testing.
In the email, Jones said she was reassigned May 5, six days after the reopening plan was announced.
Emails obtained by the Times showed the day before, May 4, Jones objected to orders to remove specific data detailing Floridians with reported symptoms or positive tests that came before the state announced any confirmed cases. That order came the same day Miami Herald reporters asked about that data.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Emails obtained by the Times showed I.T. director Craig Curry citing Dr. Carina Blackmore, director for the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, with instructions to take down the data on May 4.
“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 to Jones that day.
Jones wrote Friday that the directions came from Dr. Roberson, who oversees Dr. Blackmore. Jones said she pushed for documentation from her direct boss.
“I said I wanted, in writing, the directive from our division to delete the data or I would not do it. Craig agreed with my position and pushed back on it," Jones said.
She then complied, emails showed. The data disappeared that night and returned the next day. Asked that week why the data temporarily vanished, a Department of Health spokesman declined to provide an explanation, saying only it “continues to be represented” on the dashboard after it returned.
The department did not respond to questions about whether Roberson was involved in the removal of that data.
After numerous media outlets reported on Jones’ email and the circumstances around it, the department announced Tuesday she had been given the chance to resign by Thursday in lieu of being terminated.
Jones said she did not resign.
Helen Aguirre Ferré, spokeswoman for DeSantis, wrote in a statement Tuesday that Jones was being removed for “a repeated course of insubordination.” By Friday, the Times had not yet received a copy of her personnel file, which it requested Wednesday.
In a public appearance with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis denounced Jones, saying removing her was “valid.” He said Jones “was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data.”
“I never published data without first clearing with the data administrator,” Jones wrote Friday. She said when reporters asked about the data showing early symptoms or tests, Dr. Roberson did not want that data available to the public.
In addition, DeSantis brought up criminal charges of sexual cyberharassment and cyberstalking, although he incorrectly said she was still facing both charges. The sexual cyberharassment charge was dropped in July, while the stalking charge remains open.
According to an affidavit filed in Leon County, Jones posted blogs including explicit photographs of a man and made repeated emails, calls and a threat to the man, whose identity is redacted.
Jones said she informed her supervisor “immediately” when she was charged.
“Knowing this information, (the Department of Health) still promoted me to manager just a few months later.”
Jones was appointed to her most recent role in November 2019.
Later Friday, she appeared on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, where she was interviewed by host Chris Cuomo.
Here are excerpts:
Cuomo: What were you asked to do that was so unusual, and improper, and in your opinion, wrong?
Jones: Well, the first time I was asked to do something improper was in April. When I brought basically what I thought the results on whether or not each county could open to superiors, they essentially told me they did not like the results.
Cuomo: How so? What does that mean?
Jones: The results didn’t match the report for reopening that had already been written. Basically a lot of rural counties for a wide range of reasons, didn’t meet the criteria that the state had outlined in order to qualify for reopening. Whereas some more populated counties did meet that criteria, and I was told that specifically, and this is a quote, ‘We can’t tell Jackson and Franklin counties that they can’t reopen, but Broward and Miami-Dade can.”
Jones: They are lying because asking me to delete data and hide information and make it publicly inaccessible was a bad decision. It was a wrong decision that I stated very clearly in several email communications that I still have (that) I did not agree with. I actually referred to it as being the wrong call. We had built our reputation in Florida — and made my dashboard famous across the whole country and the even world because we were transparent and we were honest about what our data was and what it meant. If there was an issue with the data integrity, they would have never put it back. But they did, as soon as they started to get calls saying why is it the same day that the press asked you about this information do you decide to delete it and pull all the information down from the website.
Cuomo: They are saying we never deleted it, so that’s how we were able to put it back, that’s why it was still there. They disagree with you with why it was put back. They say it wasn’t because the media was asking, it was just organizing the data differently and they have a hundred deep reasons that I don’t get and neither will anybody else, but they say it was never deleted, so we never actually deleted it, or you just decided not to delete it because it was never deleted, so we’re ok.
Jones: It was absolutely deleted and it is public record that it was deleted. The data did go down. It broke all of the links across our department of emergency management website, our own department of health website, as soon as it went down. I have the email records ordering me to take it down. As I said, I replied this is the wrong call and immediately replied after that that it was down and that was it. About an hour later I was told to put some of the data back but not all of it and the next day I was told to return all of the data in the exact same form as it had been published the day before that and for weeks before that period of time.
Cuomo: So when you say deleted, it was something you were still able to recall, and that winds up being one of the points of discrepancy. So now the second point of pushback is, by the way, we have nothing to hide because we are doing great. We are ahead of Georgia. We are ahead of Texas. Our numbers are out there. DeSantis was late to the game in terms of opening back up so we weren’t trying to force anything. We were late in reopening and we are doing better than anyone else. The numbers show it. So why would we hide them?
Jones: We are doing well. We are doing much better than a lot of other states and certainly a lot better than people expected Florida to do considering that we had spring break open and as you said, we were late to the game. That is something that I’ve defended and championed for the governor and our health department the entire time I was working on this project, was how well we were doing. But now it’s impossible to know how reliable that data is because they changed the way the data is calculated. They changed how they record the data and how they publish it and data continues to go missing from the website when the dashboard now crashes all the time.
Jones: They calculated the number of positive, or the percent positive people, and changed it to new cases over total tests per day, which is also deceptive.
Cuomo: Why is that deceptive?
Jones: So let’s say I give you 100 apples, right? And 50 are rotten. And I ask you what percent are rotten. You’d say, 50 percent. If I then tell you that 30 were rotten yesterday, and 10 were rotten two days before that and that five are almost completely rotten but not quite, and I’ve cut the other 50 non-rotten apples into hundreds of tiny little pieces, what percent of the apples are rotten? It’s still 50 percent.
Cuomo: It’s still 50 percent.
Jones: Yeah. You just made it extremely complicated and convoluted. So what we used to do for percent positivity, which was one of the benchmarks that each county had to meet in order to qualify to reopen, it had to be below 10 percent and decrease over two weeks. So normally, when we people think of percent, they take the number of positive people divided by the people tested. That seemed honest and fair. They changed it to the number of new cases per day over the number of negative tests per day, so if you decide you want to get tested five times today, you count five times toward the negative if those are all your results. If I’m positive, I count once.
Cuomo: Is that still true?
Jones: Yes. It is still how they are referring to positivity.
Cuomo: Alright, last thing. Here’s what they say: Forget about the numbers. We’re doing great on the numbers. We don’t care what she says. But I’ll tell you what we do care about: her. She didn’t like how this was going and she handled it badly. Here’s the response from the Florida Department of Health: "Rebekah 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. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide important information on the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team. Having someone disruptive can’t be tolerated during a public pandemic led the department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.” In other words, you got a ‘tude problem. You didn’t like what they told you so you handed it badly. Do you accept the criticism?
Jones: Somewhat, yes. If refusing to mislead the public during a health crisis is insubordination, then I will wear that badge with honor.
Cuomo: The way they wanted to do it, the way you wanted to do it aren’t equal in the eyes of experts?
Jones: No. None of the methodology that I was being asked to apply, which really wasn’t based on statistically sound methodology at all, was not science. They were asking me to manually go in and basically type yes or no, this county needs it, with any real risk assessment as to whether or not that county should. There may be plenty of rural counties that were perfectly safe to reopen that we would never know because the numbers were manipulated.
Cuomo: What’s your next move?
Jones: Well, as you’ve heard, I’m out of a job, so I’d like to get back to doing what I love which is helping people.
Cuomo: Would you want to go back there?
Jones: No, not unless there’s a change in leadership, no.
Cuomo: So you have to figure out what you’re doing next. Rebekah Jones, I know a lot of this stuff is convoluted. I know this has been very hard for you to be in the spotlight. There are a lot of big accusations coming your way, so thank you for taking this opportunity to help us understand what this is about and what it means for the people of Florida. Thank you.
Jones: Thank you for letting me talk.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.
SO YOU WANT TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE? Read these 10 tips first
DID YOU TEST POSITIVE FOR CORONAVIRUS? A Tampa Bay Times reporter would like to talk to you.
WHAT’S OPEN?: This list includes local establishments doing business in various ways.
LOCAL RESTAURANTS: The updated database of Tampa Bay restaurants open for dine-in or takeout
UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits
LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters
HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.