State Health Department employee fired for modifying COVID-19 dashboard without approval

by | May 20, 2020

An employee at the Florida Department of Health has been terminated for insubordination after she made changes to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard without permission from superiors. The employee, Rebekah Jones, played a major role in the creation of the dashboard, which was frequently cited in news stories by major media outlets, including The Capitolist, early in the crisis. The tool has been praised by the Trump Administration for the depth of information it presented to the public about the coronavirus crisis in Florida.

But  over the past two months, the dashboard had been altered several times, with key changes to the data being presented, to the point The Capitolist was eventually forced to abandon the tool as a reliable source of information about the crisis. The dashboard data often did not match other state sources of information, and did not make clear what changes were made to the presented data, making tracking and data analysis using the dashboard impossible.

Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ administration said last night that the employee was fired for insubordination, disputing allegations that she was terminated for refusing to manipulate data.

“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,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in a statement. “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.”

Jones’ firing drew criticism from Florida Democrats, many of whom have called for an investigation into the matter. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, believed to be eyeing a run for governor in 2022 against DeSantis, has asked Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees to appear before the state Cabinet next week to answer questions about Jones’ firing, according to News Service of Florida:

Democratic lawmakers also said they want answers from Rivkees, while state Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called for an investigation into the firing. Jones, a geographic information systems manager for the department’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, told the paper that she was fired for refusing to manipulate data.

She subsequently told CBS 12 news that she was removed because she was ordered to censor some data but refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen” the economy. DeSantis called the situation a “non-issue,” noting at a Tallahassee news conference Tuesday that the COVID-19 dashboard has been lauded by the Trump administration and researchers.

DeSantis downplayed the reaction by Florida Democrats as a political ploy.

“Our dashboard has been recognized nationally. Dr. [Deborah] Birx has praised it multiple times. It’s a heck of a tool. Just as we are very transparent with this, you can drill down and see all of the different data on each individual county. I think that’s a very good thing.”

DeSantis has taken a series of steps this month to reopen the economy after businesses shut down or scaled back to prevent the spread of the virus.

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