TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As state leaders call for an investigation into the removal of the woman who designed Florida's much-lauded COVID-19 dashboard, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday called the situation a "non-issue."
Rebekah Jones was tasked to publish COVID-19 data to the site, which tracks cases, deaths, hospitalizations and more on a daily basis -- at least twice a day during the peak of the pandemic.
In an email dated May 15, sent to a group of people who get coronavirus updates and obtained by 10Investigates through a source at USF Health, Jones said her office stopped maintaining the system on May 5 "for reasons beyond" their control.
Jones also said the state is making "a lot of changes" to how the data is presented. Government leaders have used vital case data to make decisions on how to react to COVID-19's spread.
"I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data," Jones wrote.
State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat, since has asked DeSantis for an investigation. Nikki Fried, the state's Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, tweeted the Florida Department of Health "censored data" and undermined public trust.
The state has released its own statement about the matter, offering a different characterization of Jones' removal. The state's statement reads in part:
"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. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.
Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19. Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the Department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment."
A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health says Jones has until 5 p.m. on Thursday to resign, or else she'll be fired.
When asked about the situation by a reporter during a news conference, DeSantis described Jones' removal as a "non-issue." He read from an email he said Jones sent to her boss.
10Investigates has obtained a copy of that email.
It was sent on May 16 from Jones to Craig Curry, director of IT for the Florida Department of Health. It says:
"So I sent an email to data users to tell them I'm off the dashboard, I can't answer their questions (aka please stop emailing me 24/7), gave them the info needed to get their API links fixed, etc., and now a reporter has called me asking why I'm not on it anymore. I said I'm not allowed to do interviews with the press. I said they've got a team working on it now, and that 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 am finally taking a vacation..
Is this one of those stupid things I should've have said? I sent this yesterday about the time my vpn/email got glitchy, but it looks like it wasn't actually sent until my passwords were reset... I have them the updated info and everything. I really don't want this to be a story, but this lady has called me like three times.
Please help me."
Later in the news conference, Gov. DeSantis went on to tout the national recognition the dashboard has received, including from Dr. Deborah Birx who serves as the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House 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 on CBS' "Face the Nation" on April 19. "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."
DeSantis said he is "proud of the folks" who continue their work on the dashboard.
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