Florida scientist says she was fired for refusing to change Covid-19 data 'to support reopen plan'

Richard Luscombe
Photograph: Larry Marano/REX/Shutterstock

The scientist in charge of Florida’s Covid-19 database was fired on the same day as the state opened up for business.

As sunbathers returned to beaches, and restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and hair salons in almost every county were permitted to open their doors on Monday, the Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration fired Dr Rebekah Jones from the Florida department of health.

Jones, the architect and manager of the online dashboard held up by the White House in April as a model of transparency and integrity, said she was sidelined after protesting orders to censor some of the information it contained. And on Tuesday she claimed she was fired for refusing to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen”.

A spokesperson for DeSantis, meanwhile, denied the allegation, and insisted that Jones was let go for disruptive behaviour and insubordination.

Jones’s dismissal has upset scientific researchers in Florida who say that accurate and impartial statistics are crucial to their work. Democrats believe the move was politically driven.

“Allegations that Florida’s government may have tried to manipulate or alter data to make reopening appear safer is outrageous,” Terrie Rizzo, the chair of the Florida Democratic party, told the Guardian in a statement.

“These kinds of actions are dangerous and, frankly, should be criminal. An independent investigation is needed immediately. Meanwhile, city and state officials across Florida should closely monitor the situation to protect the public’s health.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, who led the Obama administration’s fight against the Ebola virus in West Africa, said in a tweet: “This raises some questions about those encouragingly low numbers in Florida recently.”

The controversy has parallels in Georgia, where the office of another Republican governor, Brian Kemp, was forced to apologise for presenting figures in that state’s public health database that falsely showed a downward trend in coronavirus cases.

DeSantis has insisted Florida was on a safe path to “phase one” reopening, admonishing the media on Monday for predicting massive numbers of deaths and hospitalisations that never came to pass and pointing to state statistics indicating the crisis was past its peak. But the governor has also previously been accused of hiding information relating to coronavirus deaths in Florida, which on Tuesday ticked past 2,000 as cases edged closer to 50,000.

Today DeSantis, a keen Donald Trump ally, will meet vice-president Mike Pence, head of the White House pandemic task force, in Orlando to discuss Florida’s reopening for tourism.

In an emailed statement to the Guardian on Tuesday night, Helen Aguirre Ferre, the governor’s spokesperson, said Jones had been “disruptive”.

“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,” she wrote.

“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.”

Jones, a data scientist with degrees in geography and journalism, constructed the database, an information-rich, dual language production that details deaths, cases, testing and people being monitored, by county, zip code and resident or non-resident status.

“I worked on it alone, 16 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,” Jones said in an email to Florida Today on Tuesday.

“They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data,” she added.

According to emails seen by the Tampa Bay Times, some of the data Jones was ordered to delete included Floridians reporting coronavirus symptoms months earlier than their cases were confirmed.

Scientists who use the database have condemned the move. “I’m as confused as I know a lot of other researchers are,” said Jennifer Larsen, a research assistant at the University of Central Florida’s LabX, which looks for Covid-19 data patterns for practical use in technology.

“Just like a hurricane coming, you have radar, tracking, data … you know when to go inside and stay safe. If we don’t know the information [then] people can get hurt, and that’s my fear here.”