(The Center Square) – In an April appearance on CBS’ "Face The Nation," White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx praised the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard as a model of transparency.
"If you go to the Florida Public Health website on COVID, they’ve been able to show their communities’ cases and tests district by district, county by county, ZIP code by ZIP code," Birx said. "That’s the kind of knowledge and power we need to put into the hands of American people so that they can see where the virus is, where the cases are, and make decisions."
The dashboard has been a one-stop shop for researchers and the public to easily access clearly presented tables of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths and testing numbers that were updated daily, often several times a day.
The site was created by DOH data scientists and public health officers and was managed by Rebekah Jones, the geographic information system manager for DOH’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection.
On Friday, Jones wrote in an email to researchers and members of the public who signed up for updates that she was removed May 5 as the COVID-19 dashboard manager.
On Monday, Jones said in an email to FLORIDA TODAY she was fired for refusing to manipulate data.
Jones told FLORIDA TODAY she created two applications in two languages, four dashboards, six unique maps with layers of data functionality for 32 variables covering 500,000 lines of data to see what the COVID-19 situation was in real time.
"I worked on it alone, 16 hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened, I'll probably never get paid for," she wrote in the email, confirming she’d been fired as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager for DOH.
FLORIDA TODAY first reported Jones' email revelation that she had been removed as dashboard manager Friday. On Monday, CBS-12 in West Palm Beach reported Jones, in emails, said in recent weeks the dashboard had crashed or gone offline several times with data “disappearing” and stated she was fired after refusing to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."
During a Tallahassee press conference Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said "I don't know who [Jones] is.”
He said DOH officials “gave me an email she sent to her supervisors saying, ‘Uh oh,’” about her Friday emails to dashboard subscribers.
“I can tell you that our dashboard has been praised nationally. You can drill down and see data for every individual county,” he said. “We can provide the emails to you. It is a non-issue.”
The governor's spokesperson, Helen Aguirre Ferré, told the Miami Herald that the dashboard remains under the management of the DOH’s “GIS team.”
“Although Rebekah Jones is no longer involved,” Aguirre Ferré said, “the GIS team continues to manage and update the dashboard providing accurate and important information that is publicly accessible.”
DeSantis has praised the COVID-19 dashboard’s transparency even while resisting disclosures of public records regarding COVID-19 testing backlogs at private labs the state has contracted with and case counts and deaths in nursing homes and prisons.
In her Friday emails to researchers and dashboard subscribers, Jones said with her removal, that information is now suspect and warned “dramatic changes” are coming to the site’s public access and transparency.
"As a word of caution, 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 wrote before signing off with, "It was great working with you guys. Good luck, and stay safe."