Rebekah Jones renews COVID-19 criticism. DeSantis says it’s a ‘conspiracy bandwagon’

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Samantha J. Gross, Ben Wieder, Sarah Blaskey
·6 min read
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As the state struggles with a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases, it’s also contending with criticism from the woman who designed the state’s public display of COVID-19 data, Rebekah Jones.

Jones was unceremoniously fired after claiming her supervisors were trying to make her manipulate data.

Rather than go away quietly, Jones designed her own competing dashboard, one that draws upon state data but offers an expanded menu of metrics, including hospital bed availability by facility, a key number, especially now as the number of confirmed cases soars. She says the state continues in its effort to twist the COVID-19 data for political reasons.

In a tweetstorm Tuesday night, Jones informed her nearly 42,000 followers that multiple health department sources have told her staff is being asked to “change the numbers and begin slowly deleting deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is improving next week in the leadup to July 4, like they’ve ‘made it over the hump.’ “

“I’ve independently verified they’ve deleted at least 1200 cases in the last week.”

She was interviewed on CNN’s morning show, “New Day,” Wednesday morning. Asked for evidence to back up her claim, Jones appeared to mute her criticism, indicating her main issue with the state’s numbers is that the official tally doesn’t count out-of-state residents who die of COVID-19 in Florida.

That’s a disparity that has been pointed out by many, but it is not the same as “deleting deaths.”

Jones did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked about Jones’ latest broadsides at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

“You’re embarrassing yourself,” the governor said, accusing the Miami Herald of “chasing the conspiracy bandwagon.”

Later Wednesday, Jones discussed her concerns on WLRN’s “Sundial” program, expressing concerns that if the state were to alter numbers ahead of the July 4 weekend, it could give Florida residents false confidence about the current danger posed by COVID-19.

“That could cost a lot of lives,” she said.

The Herald has questioned the state numerous times about apparent inconsistencies with the data it has released. Earlier this week, for example, a news release from the Florida Division of Emergency Management cited a different count for the number of new COVID-19 cases in the state on June 22 than the state’s dashboard.

Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said that the state had previously produced two different numbers each day, reflecting different time periods, but would report only one of the two numbers going forward.

Floridians flattened the COVID curve. Then, amid upbeat talk, the numbers began to rise

Previously the Herald asked Moscoso about wild fluctuations in COVID-19 case counts at long-term care facilities over the course of a few days and was given little explanation for the variation.

The data on COVID-19 cases, deaths and testing in long-term care facilities were released only in response to pressure, including a lawsuit filed by the Herald and several other news organizations.

Since announcing its first positive case of the coronavirus in Florida on March 1 — after weeks of tracking suspected cases but not telling local hospitals, much less the public — the state has generated voluminous data, much of it displayed on the public dashboard that is updated daily. Earlier this month, a Miami Herald investigation revealed how the governor had proceeded with reopening Florida despite indications in the data that the state might no longer be meeting federal guidelines.

Jones, the geographic information system manager for DOH’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, caused a storm last month after multiple media outlets published an email she wrote that stated authority over the dashboard had been taken away from her office. The sharply worded email, shared with the Herald by a recipient of the message, was addressed to users of the state’s data portal, which includes researchers and journalists.

In that and other emails, first provided to Florida Today, she appears to be instructed to not just revoke access to certain data, but to take down the whole site because it provided access to the data.

“This whole site needs to come down,” Scott Pritchard wrote in one of the emails Jones provided. “It literally has all the data files.”

She was fired for insubordination.

Pritchard was the state’s interim director of infectious disease prevention and investigations section in the Bureau of Epidemiology’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, most recently leading a team of epidemiologists involved in the COVID-19 response, according to the Department of Health.

After 15 years of service, he left his role at the department in June. Moscoso, the DOH spokesman, said Pritchard “decided to resign to pursue other professional goals.”

Pritchard, who according to his Facebook is on a cross-country road trip, did not return a request for comment.

“Scott has a very strong work ethic, is creative in his approach to epidemiology, and sets high standards for himself and also for the people around him,” said Richard Hopkins, a former colleague at DOH. “He has — or used to have — very little tolerance for excuses.”

One former department employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Pritchard expressed fear that he would be the scapegoat blamed by DeSantis when case numbers “started exploding.”

The former employee said Pritchard officially resigned June 11, the day DeSantis announced a plan for K-12 schools to reopen in August.

Jones has raised more than $183,000 on a GoFundMe website for her rival dashboard, where she says the data will not be “fudged.” The new dashboard, which she calls Florida COVID Action, looks a lot like the state health department’s and draws upon state data, but has some differences.

For one, it shows which Florida counties are ready for the next phase of reopening (she reports only three are). It also highlights the number of intensive care unit beds available across the state and provides information on testing locations across the state.

Jones includes extensive documentation for each element of her dashboard and explains how her data presentation and calculations differ from those provided by DOH. Jones includes positive antibody tests in her total number of cases, for example.

The Herald was unable to independently verify her claim that 1,200 cases had been deleted by DOH in the last week. The Herald compared DOH case line data published on June 21 and June 22 to look for discrepancies in cases. For cases dated March 1 through June 20, the Herald analysis showed 10 cases appeared to have been dropped from one data publication to the next. All of those cases were from June.

Speaking on WLRN, Jones said that former colleagues she remains in contact with at DOH tell her they are regularly asked to manipulate data to make Florida’s numbers look better.

”Every day,” she said.

She said she has preserved thousands of pages of emails and other documents and has been in contact with numerous lawmakers, and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, investigating her claims.

”There are definitely receipts and they will be made public,” she said.