May 23, 2020 - Health

Former Florida health dept. employee says official asked her to manipulate coronavirus data

In this image, Ron DeSantis speaks while wearing a suit

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a roundtable with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday. DeSantis defended Jones' ouster at the event. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A former employee at Florida's health department says that a top official told her to "manipulate" data to encourage public support for the state's reopening plan in rural counties, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Driving the news: Rebekah Jones, who helped design Florida's coronavirus data tracker, was fired from her position this week after what she says was a dispute over how much information about infections and deaths should be made public, per the AP.

  • Emails obtained by the Times show the department's I.T. director instructed Jones to remove data on Floridians who tested positive for the virus on May 4. The order apparently came from the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection director.
  • Jones told the Times that she was reassigned on May 5, after objecting to the removal.

What they're saying: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defended Jones' ouster at a Wednesday roundtable with Vice President Mike Pence, saying that it was a "nonissue," NPR reports.

The other side: “It is patently false to say that the Department of Health has manipulated any data,” Shamarial Roberson, the state's Deputy Secretary for Health, told the Times in a statement.

  • A spokeswoman for DeSantis told the Miami Herald that Jones was removed from her position for “a repeated course of insubordination," which included modifying the department's COVID-19 dashboard.
  • Jones did not specify to the Times what data had been manipulated or how she was asked to change it. She told the Times that she did not know the identity of the outside vendor that supplied the data.

Where it stands: Florida is reporting just over 50,000 COVID-19 cases, per Johns Hopkins data. Over 2,200 people have died from the virus, per the state health department.

  • The state began its first phase of reopening the first week of May — while Jones was reportedly instructed to remove coronavirus data.
  • Restaurants in Florida began allowing indoor seating with no more than 50% capacity earlier this week, along with stores, gyms and museums.

Go deeper: Florida's slow response may have made its coronavirus outbreak worse

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