Fired COVID-19 dashboard manager raises red flags about accuracy of state data

Published: May. 19, 2020 at 5:45 PM CDT
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Florida’s nationally celebrated COVID-19 dashboard suggests reopening is going as well as one can hope.

Infection rates remain well below target levels and emergency visits for flu and COVID-like illnesses are on the decline, but the firing of the architect and manager of the dashboard is raising questions about the reliability of the state data.

An email sent by the architect and former manager of Florida’s COVID-19 Dashboard to researchers and her former team makes a disturbing claim.

Rebekah Jones alleges to have been fired for being too transparent.

"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,” said Jones in the email.

For Pam Marsh, President of the First Amendment Foundation, the accusation is disheartening.

“How do we make decisions based on information that's A: inaccurate and now we have this reason distrust it?” said Marsh.

Marsh also pointed out the timing of Jones’ firing as suspect.

In the email Jones claims to have been let go on May 5th, just one day after the first phase of the Governor’s reopening plan went into effect.

“When the administration needs the data to show that the curve is not just flattening, but going down,” said Marsh. “More information on this is important to gather, but I think that right now is really suspicious.”

We reached out to Jones via two email accounts, her cell and office phone numbers.

We also contacted her on Facebook, but only received an automated message saying she was not doing interviews.

The Governor’s Office released information Tuesday afternoon disputing Jones’ claim.

“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 the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team,” said DeSantis’ Communications Director Helen Ferre in an emailed statement.

We asked the Governor about the email directly.

DeSantis read from an email his staff provided him sent to his administration by the Department of Health.

In it Jones explains the email in question as a mistake.

“What I meant when I said don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away, and it was ridiculous that I managed to do it in the first place,” said Jones.

DeSantis went on to praise the level of transparency the dashboard provides.

“Our dashboard has been recognized nationally. Doctor Birx has praised it multiple times,” said DeSantis.

Despite the email, CBS-12 in West Palm Beach reported to have received an email directly from Jones where she stated she was fired because she was ordered to censor data, and refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Florida’s dashboard currently reflects just shy of 47,000 cases, 8,400 hospitalizations and more than 2,000 deaths.

The latest data shows only 4.27 percent of tests are returning COVID-19 positive.

We’ll continue trying to get a more detailed account from Jones.