Florida dashboard

A screenshot of Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. 

(The Center Square) – Rebekah Jones, the geographic information system analyst fired by the Florida Department of Health in May, says she will file a formal whistleblower complaint and other lawsuits against the state.

“I’ve spoken to my lawyer and another lawyer, and in the next few weeks, we will be filing that and others,” Jones said Thursday during an online Our Whistleblower in Florida forum hosted by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications.

Jones fostered controversy in mid-May when she claimed in a mass email to DOH COVID-19 dashboard subscribers she had been relieved as dashboard manager for resisting a 27-hour embargo on data.

In ensuing emails to FLORIDA TODAY and CBS-12 in West Palm Beach, Jones claimed she had been fired for refusing to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

The governor’s office said Jones rankled supervisors by posting her own analysis of COVID-19 trends on her GeoJones.org website without permission and was a “disruptive” presence.

Gov. Ron DeSantis Communications Director Helen Aguirre Ferre said Jones was fired for “repeated insubordination … including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”

According to DOH, Jones was asked May 4 to temporarily disable site users’ ability to export raw data from the dashboard until it could be verified. That data disappeared until 8 p.m. May 5.

Since leaving DOH, Jones has designed her own Florida COVID-19 dashboard that offers an expanded menu of metrics, including hospital bed availability by facility.

She surfaced prominently among critics of Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees’ decision last week to ask hospitals to revise how they report COVID-19 demand for intensive care unit beds, changing the emphasis from numbers of available beds to the “acuity” of patients in those beds.

Rivkees said some hospitals were housing all COVID patients in ICU even if they did not require intensive care. His request was to count only ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in critical condition who need an “intensive level of care.”

In series of tweets Tuesday, Jones told 42,000 followers that DOH sources said they’re being ordered to “change the numbers and begin slowly deleting deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is improving next week in the lead-up to July 4.”

“I’ve independently verified they’ve deleted at least 1,200 cases in the last week,” she said, repeating the claim on WLRN radio's “Sundial” program.

DeSantis has dismissed Jones’ allegations as a “non-issue.” When asked for comments Wednesday, he sighed, “You’re embarrassing yourself, chasing the conspiracy bandwagon.”

Jones has a doctorate in geography from Florida State University, a master's degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University, and a bachelor's degree in geography and journalism from Syracuse University, where she graduated in 2012 from the Newhouse School.

During Thursday’s Newhouse forum, Jones said her whistleblower complaint will address the way case data is handled and removed from DOH’s public records and identify people taking “unethical actions.”

Jones said “cooked data” gave Floridians a false sense of security and has contributed to a record surge in new cases.

“There are legitimate social and economic reasons to maybe start reopening that the data doesn’t support,” Jones said. “And it would be fine if you said that, but changing the data to make it look that way is not something I was comfortable with, and I said more people are going to die because of this and I don’t want to be a part of it.”