State officials call for answers, investigations, into firing of FL data scientist; Gov. DeSantis says the firing was justified

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Top Democrats are calling for answers and investigations into a data scientist who was fired for “refusing to manipulate data” related to COVID-19 infections, deaths, and other public health measures, according to Florida Today.

The Florida Department of Health, which oversees a massive dashboard of data, fired Rebekah Jones earlier this week, according to the newspaper.

She was the architect of the dashboard that provided transparency on numerous data points so the public would know what was going on during the coronavirus crisis.

Florida Today stated that after the newspaper first reported Jones’ removal, “she confirmed, as reported by CBS-12 in West Palm Beach that she was fired because she was ordered to censor some data, but refused to ‘manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.'”

The plan to “reopen” was a Gov. Ron DeSantis effort to loosen restrictions from stay-at-home orders that closed many businesses and try to boost Florida’s economy.

During a news conference called to discuss the state’s overwhelmed unemployment compensation application system, DeSantis dismissed the firing episode as a “non-issue.”

His office released an email that it said Jones wrote to her supervisor indicating that the matter was a misunderstanding born of her long hours working on the dashboard and fielding frequent questions from users.

“[W]hat 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 that it was ridiculous that I managed to do it in the first place, and that I was tired a needed a break from working two months straight and am finally taking a vacation,” DeSantis said.

“Is this one of those stupid things I shouldn’t have said?” the email says.

Communications chief Helen Ferré issued the following statement:

“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.

“Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19. Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment.”

The governor used numerous data measures to weigh whether Florida’s residents could be safe from the virus and able to eat at restaurants, shop at retail stores, and go to the gym, among other efforts.

Since the newspaper story came out, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat on the Florida Cabinet, has requested that Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and other officials responsible for the firing appear at the Cabinet meeting May 28.

Fried wrote in a letter to Gov. DeSantis, that: “It has come to my attention that Dr. Rebekah Jones, the state employee responsible for the DOH’s COVID-19 dashboard, was not only involuntarily removed from her position after expressing concerns about an order she received to manipulate COVID-19 data, but was fired yesterday by the agency you oversee.

“These actions 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 addition, state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat representing parts of Miami-Dade County, sent a letter to DeSantis asking for an investigation. It stated:

“Floridians have learned of allegations that a public health employee was involuntarily removed from her post because she wanted to maintain the integrity of information reported to the public on COVID-19. Further, the allegations are that such suppression or censorship was motivated by an effort to increase support for steps the governor wished to or was undertaking. These allegations must be investigated fully and immediately.

“As such I request that you immediately direct your chief inspector general to conduct an expedited investigation into the allegations.”

The Florida Democratic Party also got involved, calling for an investigation.

Party chair Terrie Rizzo stated:

“Allegations that Florida’s government may have tried to manipulate or alter data to make reopening appear safer is outrageous. These kinds of actions are dangerous and, frankly, should be criminal. An independent investigation into these allegations is needed immediately. Meanwhile, city and state officials across Florida should closely monitor the situation to protect the public’s health.”

Note: This story has been updated to include material from the email supplied by the governor’s office and its statement on the matter.

Phoenix deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.