Florida Scientist Says She Was Fired For Not Manipulating COVID-19 Data
NOEL KING, HOST:
In Florida, COVID cases are surging. It was one of the first states to reopen back in May. And Governor Ron DeSantis said his decision was data driven. But Rebekah Jones says data scientists were pressured to fix the numbers to make the argument to reopen. Up until May, she worked for Florida's Department of Health, and she created Florida's coronavirus data portal. She talked to Rachel on Skype.
REBEKAH JONES: The dashboard itself was a simple way to deliver critical information to the public. So I included things like, you know, cases per day, total cases that we had confirmed, deaths that had been confirmed over time, information for individual counties, testing information, all of that kind of critical information need-to-know stuff. The other side of that was a data portal that allowed people to easily download, essentially, all of the public data that we had. And that whole data system was my job for, you know, 16 hours a day every day for months until early May.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So what happened then?
JONES: I was asked by DOH leadership to manually change numbers. This was a week before the reopening plan officially kicked off into phase one. I was asked to do the analysis and present the findings about which counties met the criteria for reopening. The criteria followed more or less the White House panel's recommendations, but our epidemiology team also contributed to that as well. As soon as I presented the results, they were essentially the opposite of what they had anticipated. The whole day while we're having this kind of back and forth changing this, not showing that, the plan was being printed and stapled right in front of me. So it was very clear at that point that the science behind the supposedly science-driven plan didn't matter because the plan was already made.
MARTIN: You mean the plan to reopen, the plan to reopen was going to go out regardless of what you and the other scientists had determined to be the most appropriate path forward?
JONES: Yes because they had already made the plan, and I hadn't even shown them the results yet.
MARTIN: Rebekah Jones says that was the beginning of a pattern, health department officials requesting changes to information on the site. She complied with those initial requests because she felt it wasn't her place to dictate policy. Then she says she was asked to lower the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases in some counties so that they were under the threshold to reopen. She said, no. Her bosses then said they wanted to exclude all counties with fewer than 75,000 people.
JONES: So even when I did that, it still didn't meet what they were expecting. So they, the next night, hired a vendor, and the vendor magically in less than a day came up with this final result that perfectly matched what the pre-written plan had prescribed.
MARTIN: So at what point were you dismissed and on what grounds?
JONES: The whole next week was a lot of manipulating things and a lot of back and forth with the epidemiologists, who were extremely uncomfortable with the way that this was being managed. And then eventually the night before the first phase of reopening, I was asked to actually delete and then hide data from the public. I said I wanted in writing that directive from my boss telling me to do that before I would do it. I said it was the wrong call, and it was a mistake to have this information that was available to the public and just take it away. I mean, I had set up the data feeds to report directly to the CDC, to Johns Hopkins. Our department emergency management depended on this data feed, every press outlet in the state and country. I worked very hard to make sure that everybody had access to this data and that it was right every day. And as soon as we took it down, all of those links essentially broke and crashed all of their websites. So less than an hour later, I was asked to put it back up, and then the next day, I was told I was no longer working on the dashboard.
MARTIN: Is it your understanding that you were dismissed from the project because you refused to manipulate the data?
JONES: Yes, absolutely. I think that as soon as I said no to one of the many things that they were doing that weren't ethical, they realized that the data wasn't so much the problem as the data keeper. And by moving me out of the way, they could do whatever they wanted, show whatever they wanted, create this image that things were improving or that it was safe using a tool that I built, which was extremely disappointing. I wasn't actually fired for another two weeks.
MARTIN: And they didn't give you a specific reason.
JONES: No, they did not.
MARTIN: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has disputed Rebekah Jones' account of her firing and even her role in creating Florida's coronavirus dashboard. A spokesperson for the governor said last month that Jones, quote, "exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department." DeSantis also told reporters they were, quote, "chasing the conspiracy bandwagon." Jones is now continuing her work on her own coronavirus website.
There is a lot of disinformation out there right now about COVID-19. You believe your data is the true and accurate reflection of the virus in Florida. But why should people trust your numbers over those of the state government?
JONES: So I don't think that my numbers are the true and accurate numbers for the state of Florida. And the reason for that is they are the Department of Health's numbers. I don't use any information on my dashboard that is not authoritative. All of my data comes from one of three sources, either the Department of Health, the Agency for Healthcare Administration, ACHA in Florida, and the Department of Emergency Management. I am trying to present this information in a more complete way and provide context so that people understand what those numbers mean and what they don't mean. So all of the data comes directly from them. Unfortunately, they're the only data source in the state for the total number of people who have tested positive for antibody testing data, for deaths data, aside from the Department of Emergency Management and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. So we still are restricted to using that information. Otherwise we're just speculating.
MARTIN: So understanding that you're just presenting data, other people can draw conclusions. But what do you think the complete information that I understand comes from the government but with your context, what story does it tell about how Florida is managing the coronavirus?
JONES: I think more than anything it shows where there are significant gaps in reporting, where there's information that we don't have that we desperately need. And I really kind of took up this mantra of not just dumping this information on people and, you know, saying here's this terrifying situation that's getting worse very quickly, now, you know, go be depressed and hide in your house. I really want people to get data, get tested, get help.
MARTIN: Rebekah Jones, we appreciate your time. Thank you so much for talking with us.
JONES: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.