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Florida Dismisses A Scientist For Her Refusal To Manipulate State's Coronavirus Data

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The scientist who created a widely praised dashboard monitoring Florida's COVID-19 cases says she has been dismissed for refusing to manipulate that data. Rebekah Jones worked in Florida's Department of Health. She says she was ousted after she wouldn't manually change data to support the state's plan to reopen. NPR's Greg Allen has been following this. He joins us now from Miami.

Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So we should note Florida's COVID-19 dashboard gained fame beyond Florida. It got a shout-out early on from White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx because it had so much detailed information about what was going on in Florida. What was Rebekah Jones' role?

ALLEN: Well, it's not clear if she was fired or was forced to resign at this point, but it is clear that she's out. She was the person who basically created this website with a database of information that was very comprehensive, as you say. You know, she has a master's degree and a Ph.D. in geography. She began working on this in January, and in March it was launched - of all this detailed information about cases broken down by demographic information down to the ZIP code level. And it was lauded by public health researchers and local officials for providing this granular information so they could spot trends and surges in cases.

Last week Jones sent an email to researchers, though, who used the database - the dashboard, telling them that she'd been removed from the project. And then today she confirmed that she'd been dismissed by the Health Department. In a statement to TV station CBS 12 in West Palm Beach, Jones says her dismissal came after she refused to change the data, as you suggested. And that's just opened this whole kind of questions about the circumstances under which - why she left.

KELLY: Right. Right. I mean, meanwhile, Florida has allowed businesses to begin reopening. Do we know specifically what she was asked to change - what she says she was asked to change?

ALLEN: It's not entirely clear at this point. She's not been available for interviews. She's sent some emails to a few reporters. But in recent weeks, researchers have said that they had trouble accessing some basic demographic information that should be easily accessible. As manager, they said that Rebekah Jones was always very responsive and worked to get them the information they needed. But then last week they got that note that said she was being taken off the project.

One of the researchers using the data is Ben Sawyer. He's the director of a lab at the University of Central Florida which is investigating how local health systems are coping with COVID-19 cases. He says Jones' removal from the project and now her dismissal raises questions about the impartiality and the transparency of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard.

BEN SAWYER: I mean, regardless of what you think about reopening Florida, you would like to know what's going on. This data is our ability to see what is happening. There are enormous questions that arise when you don't know if what you see is fair or accurate.

ALLEN: Gov. DeSantis today called it a non-issue. He says he's seen an email that she sent to her supervisor saying she didn't mean to suggest that the data might be less reliable now that she's not in charge. And DeSantis says he understands she just needed a break, and that was why she's no longer there.

KELLY: And, Greg, we just have a few seconds left. But just to situate this with some context, there are other incidents that have raised questions about how transparent Florida is being about its number of cases in COVID-19.

ALLEN: Right. I mean, reporters have been struggling for months to get information in a number of areas, including outbreaks and long-term care facilities and prisons. The administration also stopped medical examiners from releasing death totals, which they'd done for years here. So it's all raised questions.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR's Greg Allen reporting from Miami.

Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE MAN GROUP'S "TONE SPOKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.