COVID-19 Data Chief Removed from Key Project as Governor DeSantis Reopens Florida
“My commitment to both [accessibility and transparency] is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”
Rebekah Jones was the head of the data team overseeing Florida’s coronavirus public dashboard, a website that received praise for its effectiveness and transparency. But Jones revealed in a scathing email that her department had been removed from the project on May 5th and drew attention to the new team’s lack of commitment to transparency.
Multiple sources received a copy of Jones’s email in which she said, “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.”
The model and data mapping had received far-reaching plaudits for its specificity in tracing cases and providing Florida residents with up-to-date case numbers. It had even received positive comments from the White House when Dr. Deborah Birx used it as an example of getting information to the American people.
But as Republican Governor Ron DeSantis looks to ‘re-open’ the economy, Florida Today reported that data had gone missing and the site had crashed multiple times after Jones was removed from the project.
“My commitment to both [accessibility and transparency] is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it,” Jones wrote in her departure email.
Fudging the Numbers
DeSantis has only had positive things to say about his state’s coronavirus transparency, but the state has acted often against the interest of the public. In April, Florida blocked The Miami Herald’s request to release coronavirus death statistics from Miami-Dade County, the hardest-hit county in the state now with 566 confirmed deaths.
Florida, along with other states, has also been slow to report cases and deaths in nursing homes and prisons.
The news out of Florida comes as President Donald Trump increases the pressure on states to open their economies. In order to justify re-opening businesses while coronavirus cases and deaths climb, much attention from the Trump administration has been pointed to how deaths and cases are counted.
On Thursday Trump said, “when you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing we would have very few cases.”
But underreporting of cases and deaths has been a huge concern in the United States with some estimates putting US deaths 30-50% higher than is currently reported.
With a large incentive to underreport numbers, Republican governors have been under scrutiny for lack of transparency in public health data. In Florida, Jones’s departure resulted in other health experts ringing the alarm.
Experts Disagree with State
Jones’s email sent shockwaves through Florida’s scientific community with many wondering if the state would try to censor scientists and public health experts.
Professor Ben D. Sawyer, director of LabX at UCF, told Florida Today, “the worry that the scientists within government who can access the full data are being actively censored. That’s a real worry.”
Without full access to accurate numbers of cases and deaths, producing models and information for public officials to determine the risk of reopening the economy becomes much more difficult.
“The ability of scientists to help is directly related to how much access we’re given to data,” Sawyer said.
Florida’s Department of Health has also censored information about coronavirus patients’ racial data, one data point other states have released. The data has consistently shown that minorities are at a higher risk of dying from coronavirus.
The Trump administration has recently mentioned Americans’ poor health as a reason for why America’s death toll is so high. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar appeared on CNN and said, “[America] a population with significant unhealthy comorbidities that do make many individuals in our communities, in particular African American, minority communities particularly at risk here because of significant underlying disease health disparities and disease comorbidities.”