Rebekah Jones, a former state employee who helped create the COVID-19 dashboard, relied upon by government leaders, business owners, journalists and residents to track the virus in the state, told news reporters with CBS12 in West Palm Beach that she was fired for refusing to censor some of the data in order to create support to reopen the state.
CBS4 News had a brief email exchange with Jones on Tuesday and requested an interview with her. However, she said that she’s not doing interviews at this time.
According to Florida Today, in an email last week to people who signed up to receive data from the dashboard, Jones wrote that a new team had taken over work on the site. She cautioned that “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.”
But in an email the next day, Jones seemed to backtrack saying what she meant was that the new team is “busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away.” She continued, saying “Is this one of those stupid things that I shouldn’t have said?” Finally, she concluded, “I really don’t want this to be a story.”
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami-Dade) admitted that there are very few details known about Jones’ firing but he said the allegations demand an inquiry. He sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis on Tuesday calling for an immediate investigation by the Governor’s Chief Inspector General.
“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Rodriguez told CBS4 News. “If it’s not true, the public needs to be reassured that that’s not the case and we can continue relying on the information. If these allegations are true, then we need to make immediate corrections to restore the public’s faith in the public reporting of this information.”
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, DeSantis downplayed the allegations saying he’s never even heard of Jones.
“It’s a non-issue,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said the dashboard shows the state’s commitment to transparency.
“Our dashboard has been recognized nationally,” he said.
The governor’s office released a state late Tuesday afternoon seeking to add additional insight into Jones’ firing.
Helen Aguirre Ferre, director of communications for the governor’s office, wrote, “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.”
The statement went on to call Jones’s behavior “disruptive.” Jones was given until Thursday at 5 p.m. to resign or be fired.
Since March, the interactive map compiled by the Florida Department of Health has allowed people to see where the hot spots for the virus were in the state and to search their county and even specific zip codes for coronavirus case totals.
Florida Congressman Ted Deutch (D-District 22) told CBS4 News that there have been other issues with transparency in DeSantis office related to the release of data regarding COVID-19. He said this issue brought up by Jones needs to be investigated.
“We use this data to make decisions about whether it’s safe to reopen and about how we fight the pandemic,” Deutch said. “If we’re not getting fully accurate data than the concern is we’re making the decisions based on politics rather than based on science and that’s not how we should be approaching this.”