The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida fired its coronavirus data scientist. Now she’s publishing the statistics on her own.

A coronavirus testing swab. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Tension built for days between Florida Department of Health supervisors and the department’s geographic information systems manager before officials showed her the door, she said, permanently pulling her off the coronavirus dashboard that she had operated for weeks.

Managers had wanted Rebekah Jones to make certain changes to the public-facing portal, she said. Jones had objected to — and sometimes refused to comply with — what she considered unethical requests. She said the department offered to let her resign. Jones declined.

Weeks after she was fired in mid-May, Jones has now found a way to present the state’s coronavirus data exactly the way she wants to: She created a dashboard of her own.

“I wanted to build an application that delivered data and helped people get tested and helped them get resources that they need from their community,” Jones, 30, said of the site that launched Thursday. “And that’s what I ended up building with this new dashboard.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx praised Florida’s official coronavirus dashboard in April as a beacon of transparency. But Jones has said that the site undercounts the state’s infection total and overcounts the number of people tested — with the official numbers bolstering the decision to start loosening restrictions on the economy in early May, when the state had not met federal guidelines for reopening.

Demonstrators on May 11 protested the mandated closure of all Florida gyms by doing push-ups and squats outside the Pinellas County Courthouse. (Video: Jozef Gherman)

The competing opinions about how to frame Florida’s data underscore the importance of access to accurate information about the virus’s spread as the state continues to lift restrictions on public life. Among other data-related controversies, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) came under heavy scrutiny after Jones first alleged publicly that the health department was manipulating statistics to support his desire to reopen.

The Florida governor’s office has not responded to an email seeking comment about Jones’s new dashboard. In a previous statement, a spokeswoman for the governor said 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.”

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Jones’s allegations about other managers’ requests are serious. She said they asked her to delete data showing that some residents tested positive for the coronavirus in January, even though DeSantis assured residents in March that there was no evidence of community spread. Jones also alleged that she was asked to manually change numbers to wrongly make counties appear to have met metrics for reopening.

Representatives for the Florida Health Department did not respond Friday to a request for comment on Jones’s dashboard but provided a statement Saturday after this article first published. A department spokesman said the January dates that Jones referenced are not necessarily when a person tested positive for the virus. Those dates could also represent the first day someone came into contact with an infected person or went to a place where he or she may have contracted the virus, the statement said.

“Epidemiologists collect information that informs the Department of Health of an individual’s symptoms, contacts and location of where they may have acquired COVID-19,” said the spokesman, Alberto Moscoso. “The first date of entry in answer to any question, COVID-related or not, is designated the event date.”

Many event dates are months before a person became sick, he added.

In an additional statement Monday, Moscoso said Jones’s dashboard “aggregates disparate sets of data without considering many of the important guidelines utilized by epidemiologists.” He said that epidemiologists do not recommend combining active virus tests with antibody tests and that by counting nonresidents’ deaths, Jones enables each of those fatalities to be tallied in two states. Moscoso also said Jones’s count of recovered cases cannot completely capture the number of people who have regained their health.

Despite the differences between the state’s dashboard and Jones’s dashboard, Jones’s site relies on the health department’s data. She said she wrote code that pulls information from various reports on the department’s website and presents the data in a way that she thinks adds more context. Her dashboard also incorporates data from hospitals and from a volunteer organization that maps coronavirus testing sites.

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On Jones’s dashboard, the number of people tested is significantly lower than the official figure. She said the state’s number is actually a tally of the number of samples taken — not the number of people tested. Her dashboard said Florida had tested 895,947 people as of Friday evening, whereas the state dashboard listed the number of people tested as more than 1.3 million.

Jones’s death toll is slightly higher because she counts nonresidents who died while they were in Florida, while the state does not. States take varied approaches in accounting for nonresidents who die there, as well as for residents who die while out of state.

The case count on Jones’s dashboard is also higher because it includes people who have tested positive for antibodies, or proteins that indicate that the virus has been in someone’s body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that antibody tests are not foolproof and that a higher percentage of positive results may be incorrect in areas where few people have had the virus.

In Jones’s eyes, the divergences from the state’s data site were necessary.

“If you’re creating something that simply presents a very narrow view of a situation that’s complex and nuanced but affects everybody’s lives, then you’re not enabling them to take action, to take some semblance of control over what they’re going through,” she said of the state health department’s dashboard.

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Jones said she plans to keep her dashboard running, from her home in Tallahassee, for as long as it seems to be useful for residents and she can afford to do so. She said that if a vaccine is developed, she wants her site to include information about distribution.

The project has been neither easy — Jones said she has been working 12-hour days — nor cheap. To launch the site, Jones said she bought a new computer, upgraded her hard drive and licensed the software that she uses to create the maps. A GoFundMe page had raised nearly $27,000 for her as of Friday evening.

Although Jones said she is open to talking with the health department about selling her dashboard to the state, she insisted that she did not launch the project out of spite or revenge.

“It really is because I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and what happened to me, as unfair as it was, and get back to doing what I wanted to do in the first place, which was help people,” she said.

Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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