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Florida official says she was ousted for refusing to censor coronavirus data

Rebekah Jones reportedly balked at changing data to "drum up" support for reopening the state.
COVID-19 Testing Begins in Historic Black Neighborhoods in Altamonte Springs, US
Health workers test people in cars for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site at the Apostolic Church of Christ in Altamonte Springs, Fla. on April 21, 2020.Paul Hennessy / Barcroft Media via Getty Images file

The head of the Florida public information portal that lists the number of coronavirus casualties and cases claims she was ousted from the project for refusing to censor the dismal data.

Rebekah Jones said the responsibility for updating the COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard was taken from her office on May 5 and, in an email first obtained by the newspaper Florida Today, she questioned the state Department of Health’s pledge to maintain “accessibility 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,” Jones wrote. “After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”

In an email to a Florida TV station, CBS12 News, Jones said her exit was “not voluntary” and that she was ousted after she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

Jones was referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to gradually reopen the state, some sectors of which were locked down to prevent the spread of a virus that as of Tuesday had claimed more than 2,000 lives in Florida.

In particular, Jones reportedly balked at removing data that showed Florida residents reported coronavirus symptoms before cases were officially announced, according to internal emails obtained by The Tampa Bay Times.

There was no immediate comment from the Florida Department of Health on Jones’ firing and she did not immediately return calls or emails from NBC News seeking comment.

But Jones’ removal comes after the state health department, without warning on April 20, stopped releasing the list of coronavirus deaths being reported by the state’s medical examiners — a tally that, at times, was reportedly 10 percent higher than the official state tally.

DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre released a statement Tuesday claiming that Jones' "blatant disrespect" to professionals who were working to provide updates on the pandemic was harmful to the team. She said Jones has until 5 p.m. Thursday to resign or "be terminated."

"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," Ferre's statement said.

The DeSantis administration has been harshly criticized for the state’s slow response to the coronavirus crisis and for failing to provide information about COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

But the governor’s office had been praised by President Donald Trump and others for creating a COVID-19 dashboard that had given daily updates on the death toll, number of cases and coronavirus tests in every county in the state.

"This is extremely troubling," said Pamela Marsh of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida-based watchdog group. "It shows an administration willing to hide the truth to further its own agenda. As Ms. Jones pointed out in her email, the data on the dashboard was being used by scientists, health care workers, journalists and citizens who wanted to inform themselves with the most accurate, up-to-date data. With this news regarding the administration’s manipulation of data, why would anyone trust the information coming out of Florida?"

Earlier, Dr. Stephen Nelson, who is chairman of Florida’s state Medical Examiners Commission, confirmed to NBC that the procedure for posting the ME figures was changed in April after the state health department intervened.

Nelson said the information they had been providing to the state health department did not list names, but it included the probable cause of death along with the victim’s demographic information and summaries of the person’s medical and travel history.

When NBC News requested the coronavirus death list from the Florida Department of Health, it was sent a compilation in which the categories “probable causes of death” and “case descriptions” were blacked out.

Screenshot of the recently revamped list of coronavirus death reports compiled by the Florida medical examiners with “probable cause of death” and “description of incident” portions blacked out.
Screenshot of the recently revamped list of coronavirus death reports compiled by the Florida medical examiners with “probable cause of death” and “description of incident” portions blacked out.Florida Department of Law Enforcement

“Without that information, this list is meaningless,” said Nelson. “To me, this is a public record paid for by taxpayers and the public has a right to know.”

Only a medical examiner can certify a death from COVID-19 in the state of Florida, Nelson added.

“The chief difference between the lists compiled by the ME’s and the Florida Department of Health is that we’re counting people who died here in Florida and they’re not,” said Nelson.

People who die in Florida but who aren’t legal residents are counted as fatalities in their home states, said Nelson.

“So our numbers are never going to be the same,” said Nelson.

The Florida Department of Health echoed Nelson in a statement.

“Data released by medical examiners and the data released by DOH can differ based on the fact that medical examiners include non-Florida residents in their reports,” it said. “The State reports this data to the CDC and the state of residency but does not include it on the COVID-19 dashboard to avoid double counting with other states. This is the same protocol that other states have for Florida residents.”