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Florida COVID-19 data chief gets sidelined and researchers cry foul

State starts to reopen amid coronavirus pandemic

Late last Friday, the architect and manager of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard — praised by White House officials for its accessibility — announced that she had been removed from her post, causing outcry from independent researchers worried about government censorship, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

The dashboard has been a one-stop shop for researchers, the media and the public to access and download tables of COVID-19 cases, testing and death data to analyze freely. It had been widely hailed as a shining example of transparency and accessibility.

But over the last few weeks it had “crashed” and gone offline; data has gone missing without explanation and access to the underlying data sheets has become increasingly difficult.

The site was created by a team of Florida Department of Health data scientists and public health officers, headed by Rebekah Jones. She announced last week her removal as of May 5 in a heartfelt farewell note emailed to researchers and other members of the public who had signed up to receive updates on the data portal.

Citing "reasons beyond my division’s control," Jones said her office is no longer managing the dashboard, is no longer involved in publication, fixing errors or answering questions "in any shape or form."

She warned that she does not know what the new team’s intentions are for data access, including “what data they are now restricting.”

"I understand, appreciate, and even share your concern about all the dramatic changes that have occurred and those that are yet to come," she wrote.

"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 signed off, “It was great working with you guys. Good luck, and stay safe.”

Jones did not respond to emailed requests to comment and the Department of Health did not reply to inquiries from Florida Today regarding Jones’ removal and access to data.

But researchers who have relied on unobstructed access to underlying raw data said they interpret Jones' removal as a clear indication of government censorship of science.

"We would not accept this lack of transparency for any other natural disaster, so why are we willing to accept it here?" said Jennifer Larsen, a researcher at the University of Central Florida's LabX.

Jones' removal and changes to the dashboard access is especially unusual given that the dashboard was lauded in April on CBS' Face the Nation by Dr. Deborah Birx, a top official of President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force.

"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."

Jones was also profiled by Esri, the software company that provides the product used to build the interactive visualization.

"Jones packaged data for academic and private researchers who are also creating models to help predict and explore impacts," the company wrote.

“If you look at our data services, there’s a lot of publicly available data, because it’s critical information,” Jones said at the time. “The efforts in the academic community to do serious data modeling are crucial right now.”

Data access has not worsened further, yet, but researchers are sounding the alarm in response to Jones' email.

Restricting the data, UCF's Larsen said, is the equivalent of cutting off hurricane forecasts as a storm approached.

“It’s all of us being denied access to what we need to know to be safe,” she continued, adding “it’s just absurd that this is being treated differently than any other threat to Floridians.”

Commissioner Nikki Fried is now requesting a cabinet briefing on the fired DOH employee.

During a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis answered a question about Jones’ removal, calling it a “non issue.” He said an email from her supervisor provided more context.

“I don’t know who she is but they gave me an email that she sent to her supervisor said that you know ‘Uh oh I may have said something that was misrepresented, I said they got a team working on it now and what I meant when I said don’t expect the same level of accessibility is that they are busy and can’t answer every single email they get right away and that it was ridiculous that I managed to do it in the first place and that I was tired and needed a break from working two months straight and finally take a vacation’ that’s what she wrote then," DeSantis said.