Florida Continues to Target a Top COVID-19 Data Scientist

Rebekah Jones.
Rebekah Jones. Photo: CNN

In May, as Florida was authorizing businesses to reopen, much to the dismay of public-health officials, the state Department of Health suspiciously fired one of its top coronavirus data scientists: Rebekah Jones, who created the dashboard that tracked the state’s COVID-19 cases. When she was terminated, a spokesperson for the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, claimed that Jones had modified the dashboard “without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.” But Jones says she was fired for refusing to manipulate the dashboard’s data, and has accused state officials of attempting to cover up the extent of the pandemic. Since then, Jones has also filed a whistleblower complaint against the health department and even launched her own independent coronavirus dashboard. But then, on December 7, police raided her home and seized much of her technology, accusing her of hacking into a governmental messaging system to urge officials to speak out about the coronavirus.

Here’s everything to know about the ongoing legal feud.

Rebekah Jones was one of Florida’s top coronavirus data scientists.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones served as the manager of the geographic information system team at Florida’s Department of Health and was tasked with building the state’s coronavirus data portal. What Jones went on to create would be praised by top researchers and public-health officials, who hailed Florida’s dashboard as informative and transparent — especially since the state’s officials had exhibited a pattern of withholding basic details about the coronavirus within the state.

In early May, the dashboard mysteriously began to crash and become increasingly inaccessible, Florida Today reported at the time. Then, on May 5, Jones wrote an email to researchers and members of the public, informing them that she and her team had been blocked from managing the dashboard for “reasons beyond my division’s control.” She continued: “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.” Then, on May 18 — the same day Florida entered its “full phase one” of reopening, allowing gyms and restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity — Jones was fired, a move which was met with intense outcry from independent researchers.

The state has accused her of “gross insubordination.”

While Governor Ron DeSantis initially publicly dismissed Jones’s termination as a “nonissue,” it wasn’t long before he went on to vehemently defend the decision. On May 20, one of his spokespeople told the Miami Herald that Jones had been fired for “[exhibiting] a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department,” and accused her of altering the COVID-19 dashboard’s data without authorization from top officials.

DeSantis has also called Jones’s character into question, referencing stalking charges that she faced last year, after she allegedly shared explicit photos of her ex-boyfriend online. Jones told CNN that that case, which is still pending, centers on a message she posted in an online support group for women who have dealt with abusive relationships.

Jones denies the state’s accusations and has since filed a whistleblower complaint.

Since Jones was terminated, she has maintained that she never committed insubordination and argued that her termination was in fact retaliatory. While Jones was asked to create a transparent database tracking COVID-19 cases in the state, she claims that when she brought the data before top officials, they “panicked” because the positivity rates did not support their case for reopening and asked her to manipulate the data. In one instance, Jones alleges that one of her superiors asked her to change the state’s overall positivity rate from 18 percent to 10 percent, which she refused to do — and which she believes contributed to her termination.

In July, Jones filed a whistleblower complaint against the health department, requesting that she be reinstated with back pay. In the meantime, she launched her own independent dashboard to track the spread of the coronavirus in Florida.

On Monday, police raided her house.

Around 8:30 a.m. on December 7, about ten armed state police officers raided Jones’s Tallahassee home, where they seized her personal computers, hard drives, and other hardware. In a video of the operation, which Jones shared on social media, an officer can be seen pointing a gun upstairs, where Jones claims her two children and husband were. “They pointed a gun in my face,” she wrote on Twitter. “They pointed guns at my kids.” (The department denies that officers ever pointed their guns at anyone inside the house, and says that they “[attempted] to minimize disruption to the family.”)

According to CNN, the officers were executing a search warrant tied to recent claims made by the health department that someone illegally accessed a government emergency system last month and sent a message to a group that specializes in public-health emergencies. According to an affidavit, the message, which was sent on November 10, reads, “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.” Officials say they traced the message to an IP address connected to Jones’s house, which prompted the raid. However, Jones vehemently denies that she was in any way involved, and told CNN, “I’m not a hacker.”

While a spokesperson for DeSantis told CNN that “the governor’s office had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation,” Jones points to the raid as yet another “thinly veiled attempt by the governor to intimidate scientists.” She told CNN that the technology officers seized contained “proof that [state officials] were lying in January about things like internal reports and notices from the CDC,” as well as “evidence of illegal activities by the state.”

“This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly,” she wrote on Twitter. “This is what happens to people who speak truth to power.”

Florida Continues to Target a Top COVID-19 Data Scientist