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Florida Ousts Top COVID-19 Data Scientist

Photo caption:

Photo by Florida GIS Screenshot by NPR

A snapshot of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

Update at 8:51 p.m. ET

A scientist who created a dashboard for monitoring Florida's rising number of COVID-19 cases said she's been fired for refusing to manipulate the data.

Rebekah Jones was the manager of the Geographic Information System team at Florida's Department of Health. She helped create a data portal that for months has provided easily accessible and detailed information on COVID-19 cases broken down by ZIP code. The Florida COVID-19 dashboard has been praised by researchers in the state and by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator.

Last week, Jones notified public health researchers in an email that she'd been removed from the project. "As a word of caution," she wrote, "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 now says she's been fired from the state Department of Health. In a statement to CBS12 News in West Palm Beach, Fla., Jones said her dismissal came after she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

All of Florida entered the first phase of recovery this week when the two largest counties joined the rest of the state in opening restaurants, retail stores and barber shops.

At a news conference in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis called Jones' departure from the Health Department a "nonissue." He said he'd seen an email she sent her supervisor saying she never intended to suggest the information on the dashboard might be less reliable going forward. DeSantis said he believes from the email that "she was tired and needed a break."

In a statement later to The Miami Herald, DeSantis' communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said, "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.

"The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team. 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' removal from the project and her subsequent dismissal have raised questions about the impartiality and transparency of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard.

Ben Sawyer, director of LabX at the University of Central Florida, which is investigating how local health systems are coping with COVID-19 cases, said her ouster is "quite disturbing to me as a scientist and as a citizen."

"Regardless of what you think about reopening Florida, you would like to know what's going on," Sawyer said. "This data is our ability to see what's happening. I think there are enormous questions that arise when you don't know if what you see [is] fair or accurate."

Jones' dismissal also drew immediate criticism from Democratic members of Congress, including Kathy Castor, who represents the Tampa area. Castor is asking the governor to provide immediate answers as to why Jones was fired.

"Amidst pressure to 'reopen' the state regardless of data and science," Castor wrote, "transparency is vital to keeping our neighbors safe and ensuring that they have confidence that our government is reporting honestly."

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