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Florida Governor Defends Firing Of Top Data Scientist

Vice President Mike Pence, right, talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as they wait for their lunch at Beth's Burger Bar, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.
Vice President Mike Pence, right, talks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as they wait for their lunch at Beth's Burger Bar, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is defending the firing of the state's top data scientist tracking the coronavirus pandemic. Rebekah Jones was ousted from her position with the Department of Health on Monday. She says she was let go for refusing to manipulate data to support the state's reopening.

When first asked about Jones' dismissal, DeSantis on Monday called it a "nonissue." He said he understood from an email she sent her supervisor that "she was tired and needed a break."

In a statement later that day to The Miami Herald, DeSantis' communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said, "Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department's COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors."

In Orlando on Wednesday, where he was with Vice President Pence, DeSantis took up the charge of insubordination and attacked Jones' claims that she created the state's highly praised COVID-19 portal. "She is not the chief architect of our Web portal. That is another false statement, and what she was doing was she was putting data on the portal, which the scientists didn't believe was valid data."

Until her dismissal, Jones was the manager of the geographic information system team at Florida's Department of Health. She helped create a data portal that for months has provided easily accessible and detailed information on COVID-19 cases broken down by ZIP code. The Florida COVID-19 dashboard has been praised by researchers in the state and by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus task force coordinator .

Last week, Jones notified public health researchers in an email that she'd been removed from the project. "As a word of caution," she wrote, "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."

After she was fired Monday, Jones told CBS12 News in West Palm Beach, Fla., that it was because she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."

In Orlando on Wednesday, DeSantis said, "Our data is available. Our data is transparent. In fact, Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data. So any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun."

DeSantis says he has also learned since her firing that Jones faces criminal stalking charges. According to court documents, Jones faces one misdemeanor charge. It stems from a relationship she had that turned contentious while she pursued a doctorate at Florida State University. "I've asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that," DeSantis said, "and continue on because this was many months ago."

Jones' removal from the project and her subsequent dismissal have raised questions among researchers about the impartiality and transparency of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard.

Ben Sawyer, director of LabX at the University of Central Florida, which is investigating how local health systems are coping with COVID-19 cases, said her ouster is "quite disturbing to me as a scientist and as a citizen."

I think there are enormous questions that arise when you don't know if what you see [is] fair or accurate.

"Regardless of what you think about reopening Florida, you would like to know what's going on," Sawyer said. "This data is our ability to see what's happening. I think there are enormous questions that arise when you don't know if what you see [is] fair or accurate."

Jones' dismissal has also drawn criticism from Democrats. Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents the Tampa area, is asking the governor to provide immediate answers as to why Jones was fired.

"Amidst pressure to 'reopen' the state regardless of data and science," Castor wrote, "transparency is vital to keeping our neighbors safe and ensuring that they have confidence that our government is reporting honestly."

State Senator José Javier Rodríguez from Miami is calling for an investigation by Florida's chief inspector general. "Floridians must have confidence that critical public health information produced and published on behalf of the state is accurate, complete and reliable. It is especially important during this period of economic reopening that decision-makers in the private and public sector — whether they be leaders of institutions, employers or parents — have access to accurate information as they make decisions impacting the lives and livelihoods of our families and communities."

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