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Former Florida Data Official Rebekah Jones on State Manipulating COVID-19 Data

Syracuse University
Rebekah Jones oversaw the statewide dashboard for COVID-19 data. She was fired for insubordination and has started her own dashboard reporting more data than the state.

Florida’s COVID-19 cases continue to surge, making it one of the new hotspots in the country. In testimony to Congress this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said there’s been a disturbing surge in new COVID cases in Arizona, Texas and Florida.

South Florida remains the epicenter for the pandemic accounting for more than 50 percent of total cases statewide. '

WLRN is committed to providing South Florida with trusted news and information. In these uncertain times, our mission is more vital than ever. Your support makes it possible. Please donate today. Thank you.

A number of hospitals in Miami-Dade and Broward are reaching their full ICU capacity; Homestead Hospital, which is part of the Baptist Health Network, announced they reached ICU capacity Tuesday. 

This comes as the Florida Department of Health is changing its reporting guidelines for hospitals with regards to available ICU beds. The department explained in a statement that the new reporting guidelines are necessary to get a more accurate count of patients receiving intensive care treatment with COVID-19 rather than simply patients in the ICU with the virus.

Rebekah Jones, the former manager of the statewide dashboard, has concerns about the reporting change. 

“Their change in language and reporting doesn’t affect how many beds are available. And to say someone who is in an intensive care unit and doesn’t require intensive care and could essentially be kicked out of an ICU bed, if someone needed it, that kind of situation only happens if the immediate care beds are full. There would be nowhere to kick that person out to. And it’s a really irresponsible way to look at patient level care,” said Jones on Sundial. 

Jones was fired from her position at the Florida Department of Health for “repeated acts of insubordination.” She’s argued its because the state asked her to deliberately manipulate the data, an assertion the Florida Department of Health has described as patently false. Jones started her own COVID-19 dashboard through support of a GoFundMe account where she now releases daily reports of Coronavirus deaths, testing, hospitalizations and resources for those seeking further information.

We spoke with her on Sundial about the dashboard, the retaliation she faced from the state and what concerns people should have about the spread of the virus. 

We reached out to the Florida Department of Health for a statement about Jones being on the program, we’ve included their statement at the bottom of this post and used portions of it throughout the conversation.               

WLRN: When did the idea come to create your own dashboard?

REBEKAH JONES: It was a week or two after everything, it had kind of started to settle down from the initial circus. And my husband said something to me that was kind of hurtful at the time, but really stuck with me. You know, our family's been drug through the mud. There were U.K. tabloids that published pictures of our children, our young children, and their names and their birthdays. 

And he said, "You lost your job. All of this. Why? What did it change?" He said, "What did it change? They still change the numbers. They're still lying to people. Why bother?" And it really bothered me that, he was right. That I hadn't changed anything. I hadn't stopped anything from happening the way the Florida Department of Health wanted it to be done. And so after being a bit down about that, I thought, well, you know what? I have these skills. I can do something about it. I can get the information out to people. And that's what I'm going to do. That was my job before. That's my job now. This time the people are just paying me directly to do it. 

What are like one or two big things that differ between your dashboard and theirs? What is it you're doing that they're not? 

Well, I added a lot of data that they repeatedly told me I couldn't add, including the hospital surveillance data. So one of the key indicators in trying to assess whether or not our health care system can absorb a spike in cases and then consequently a proportional increase in hospitalizations and ICUs is how many beds we have available at hospitals. And as I mentioned earlier, we have 1,400 adult ICU beds available in the entire state based on historical hospitalization rates. That's more people that will be hospitalized that were diagnosed today. And that is a serious indicator.

I also added resources. So I always wanted to add testing sites to our dashboard. You know, people are coming here. They get this information. Everything's bad. Awful. "OK, well, what can I do about it?" How do I take control of myself and my life in this situation? And one of the easiest ways to do that is to get tested. The fact that DOH never allowed us to publish in any place where the testing locations were, their contact information and all of that information that had to be gathered by an academic group, nonprofit — the GISCorps — was stunning to me. So I've added that as well. So you can actually go to my dashboard, click on your county and search by your address and find all of the testing centers near you and their hours and their contact info and whether it's a drive through, whether you need a referral, you can search by all of that. 

You look at the information that's posted up every day by the Florida Department of Health. I'm just wondering, how much trust can we have in it? You're pulling data from them anyway you're making the claim that they're manipulating the data. There's data that's not complete, that they're changing. So what is it then that people should trust? 

Well, I make clear on my dashboard where those changes are happening. So over the last week or so, several hundred to potentially over a thousand cases have actually been deleted from the DOH data. So now on the home page of my dashboard, I put a special marker for counties where from one day to the next, they actually lost cases. So I make sure that that information is known. It is, unfortunately, the only means that we have of getting confirmed positive information about residents in Florida. We have to work with that. We have to understand its limitations and its nuances. And I've worked really hard to kind of explain those on the dashboard. 

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.