TAMPA, Fla. — One day before a top Florida Department of Health data manager lost her role maintaining the state's COVID-19 data, she objected to the removal of records showing people had symptoms or positive tests before the cases were announced, according to internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
She has since been asked to resign, she said Tuesday.
According to the emails, department staff gave the order shortly after reporters requested the same data from the agency on May 5. The data manager, Rebekah Jones, complied with the order, but not before she told her supervisors it was the "wrong call."
By the next morning, control over the data was given to other employees, according to an email Jones posted Friday on a public listserv. Jones, the department's geographic information systems manager, wrote that she was no longer handling questions about the department's "Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard." She implied her removal was an act of retribution.
Jones confirmed Tuesday that she was offered a settlement and the option to resign in lieu of being fired, effective May 26.
The dashboard Jones managed is the best official source for in-depth data on how the deadly pandemic is moving through the state. Studying it is the surest way to know where outbreaks are growing and where testing is being done. Without access to the data, Floridians would have to rely on the word of officials and politicians without being able to verify for themselves.
Besides the visible dashboard, the department releases the same data, with only slightly more information, in daily reports, as well as in another format that allows for easier data analysis.
In her Friday email to subscribers of a COVID data listserv, Jones said she was reassigned on May 5 "(f)or reasons beyond my division's control" and warned that whoever took over may be less straightforward.
"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," she wrote.
"They are making a lot of changes. I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data."
Jones also told WPEC-TV, Tallahassee's CBS affiliate, on Monday that she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen" the state.
Emails sent within the department May 4 indicate a busy timeline leading up to Jones' reassignment.
That day, according to the Miami Herald, reporters contacted the department to ask about the "EventDate" field of data, which showed when people first reported coronavirus symptoms or positive test results. Some people had listed dates as early as Jan. 1, indicating people reported symptomatic or tested positive much earlier than when cases were confirmed in March. It is unclear when the state learned about those cases, or when the people were tested.
Sometime that day, the column vanished from the "Person Cases" data, which lists anonymized records for every confirmed case in Florida. The Palm Beach Post reported the disappearance the next day, May 5.
The Tampa Bay Times automatically checks for changes in the data and archives new updates. Shortly before 10:12 a.m. local time on May 4, data still included the EventDate field, showing records with listed dates that people reported symptoms as early as Jan. 1. By 3:02 p.m., the column was gone.
For much of the next day, May 5, the column was either missing or empty, with every row listing "None." Finally, it returned shortly before 8:02 p.m.
Times reporters asked Health Department spokesman Alberto Moscoso that day why the data disappeared. Two days later, he said, "This field continues to be represented on the Department's COVID-19 Dashboard."
Moscoso did not reply to requests for comment Tuesday.
According to internal emails reviewed by the Times, Department of Health information technology Director Craig Curry emailed Jones just before 5 p.m. on May 5. He cited Dr. Carina Blackmore, director for the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection.
"Per Dr. Blackmore, disable the ability to export the data to files from the dashboard immediately. We need to ensure that dates (date fields) in all objects match their counterpart on the PDF line list published," Curry wrote.
The tables in the PDF documents did not include the column of data showing when symptoms were first reported, only the "Case Date" — the date the state recorded and confirmed the case.
"This is the wrong call," Jones replied minutes later.
A few minutes later, she emailed Curry again. "Case line data is down."
Then, just after 6 p.m., the IT director emailed both Jones and Blackmore. "Re-enable for now please."
Jones replied, "10-4."
Neither Blackmore nor Curry replied to requests for comment.
According to the Syracuse University alumni magazine, Jones joined the Department of Health in 2018. She worked for emergency response teams after Hurricanes Michael and Dorian before becoming GIS manager in November 2019. Jones graduated from Syracuse before earning a master's degree in geography at Louisiana State University and then teaching and working towards a Ph.D. at Florida State University, according to a resume posted to Florida State's website.
Jones, 30, built the dashboard "from scratch," she told the magazine in March. Through early May, she had provided information and updates on the tool to researchers and journalists, including Times reporters.
"If you look at our data services, there's a lot of publicly available data, because it's critical information," Jones in April told a blog by Esri, the company that creates software used by the department.
"We would much rather the public or the press have the data that we've triple checked than to scrape the web trying to count cases or have a research group or university create a model with data that we haven't verified," Jones said in the article. "The efforts in the academic community to do serious data modeling are crucial right now."
The same dashboard received national attention when Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, first raved about it April 20.
"So I did spend about five hours going to every state website, and I will tell you that the — Florida's Department of Health website is extraordinary," Birx told reporters at the White House. "This is how we have to inform the American public, and this is where the American public will develop confidence in each of their counties and local governments."
Jones said she was reassigned 15 days later.