Questions arise on coronavirus data used to back reopenings

·5 min read

The firing of a Florida state health official who says she refused orders to change data on coronavirus cases has raised questions about some of the statistics that governors have used to justify ending lockdown orders.

Rebekah Jones, who designed and managed the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, told CBS News 12 in West Palm Beach that her departure earlier this month was “not voluntary” and that she was removed from her position because she was ordered to censor some data. She said she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

In an email to her colleagues alerting them to her departure two weeks ago, Jones wrote, “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.”

Jones served as the geographic information system manager for the Florida Department of Health’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection. The dashboard had been previously praised by White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Deborah Birx. The state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is a Republican and close ally of President Trump who initially hesitated to fully shut down the state and has pushed for reopening.

Florida Governor. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the newly completed I-4 and State Road 408 interchange. (Photo by Paul Hennessy / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a press conference at the newly completed I-4 and State Road 408 interchange. (Paul Hennessy/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

“The Florida COVID-19 Dashboard was created by the Geographic Information System (GIS) team in the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection at the Florida Department of Health,” DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré told the Miami Herald in a statement. “Although Rebekah Jones is no longer involved, the GIS team continues to manage and update the Dashboard providing accurate and important information that is publicly accessible.”

In an email to the news site Florida Today on Tuesday, Jones said, “I worked on it alone, sixteen hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened I’ll probably never get paid for,” confirming that she had not just been reassigned on May 5, but fired.

Last week the state of Georgia fixed a graph showing COVID-19 cases after intense online mockery and criticism. The original graph was not arranged chronologically along the X axis, but instead to order the data in a way that made it look like it was declining.

Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican and close ally of Trump, has been on the forefront of pushing to reopen. His office apologized for the bungled data representation. It was the latest mishap by the state, which has struggled to accurately relay data about the disease.

“Our mission failed. We apologize. It is fixed,” tweeted Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to members of the media during his weekly press conference regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic from the Georgia State Capitol on May 07, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp at a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic on May 7. (Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kemp had previously drawn ridicule for saying in early April that he didn’t realize that asymptomatic carriers were capable of infecting others, a fact that had been widely known for several weeks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its headquarters in Atlanta, which is also Georgia’s state capital.

Kemp has cited projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) during press conferences, but the IHME’s Ali Mokdad, a former CDC official, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the state wasn’t actually using its data for guidance.

“They’re not using our data to open,” Mokdad said. “They’re relaxing measures earlier than we say it’s safe.”

On Monday, the Georgia Department of Public Health admitted another error, tweeting that it had accidentally included the results of serological antibody testing — which detects evidence of a previous infection — along with the number of those who actively have the virus.

A similar issue is clouding the data in Texas, another state with a Republican governor that has begun reopening. On Saturday, the Texas Observer reported that the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) was including antibody testing results along with the number of active cases from viral swabs of a person’s nose or throat. A spokesperson for the DSHS confirmed to the Observer that the agency was including some antibody testing results in its data.

“If antibody tests are included in here, we really need to know what proportion of those positive test results are antibodies, because it changes how we understand the timeline of infections,” said Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, in an interview with the Observer. “Certainly that data should be made public on their website, given how people are using it. It would change our whole understanding of when infection events were happening in the community, and that would be really important to know and be reported in the data.”

On Saturday, with the first phase of reopening underway, the Lone Star State had its highest jump in new cases yet, which the governor’s office attributed to an increase in testing. Over the last week Texas has also had its highest single-day death total.


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