Professionalism/Rebekah Jones, Ron DeSantis, and the Florida Department of Health

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

On May 18, 2020, Rebekah Jones was fired from the Florida Department of Health for insubordination while leading the department's COVID-19 Dashboard team. Jones had worked as a geographic data analyst for the department for almost two years. Following her termination, she contended that she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 case numbers to make the state of Florida appear ready to reopen from lock down despite continued rising case numbers.

Rebekah Jones[edit | edit source]

Rebekah Jones

Background[edit | edit source]

Rebekah Jones was born in Pennsylvania in 1989. She attended Syracuse University for her undergraduate, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in geography, newspaper, and online journalism in 2012. She then earned her Master's Degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University in 2014 and her Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in geography from Florida State University in 2020. She applied her expertise in geography to regional data analytics when she joined the Florida Department of Health as a Geographic Information Systems Analyst in September of 2018, where she initially used geographical data following Hurricane Michael to guide regional disaster response implementation. Through this, Jones became proficient in the intersection of geography and data science, gaining experience in analyzing regional responses to disasters.

Florida Department of Health COVID-19 Dashboard[edit | edit source]

After working for the Florida Department of Health for more than a year, Jones was tasked with leading a team to design the Florida Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard, a website depicting geographical data regarding COVID-19 cumulative case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. Jones joined this team in January 2020 and the dashboard was set to launch to the general public in March 2020. The geographical aspect of the data, pioneered by Jones, allowed users to visualize greatest at-risk areas within the state of Florida; the data was presented through a regional map of the state of Florida, where areas with the greatest positive case numbers were shaded darker. Jones wanted the dashboard to have full data transparency, including positive antibody tests despite Florida's decision to not count these in total case numbers. Jones also wanted the dashboard to include self-reported exposure data, where Florida residents could report possible COVID-19 exposures even prior to testing positive, which raised concerns from supervisors over possible "confusion" about the data and its implications. Superiors contended that including antibody tests and possible exposures made the pandemic appear worse than actual conditions, but Jones felt strongly that Florida civilians had a right to complete transparency about the state of the pandemic. When asked to remove positive antibody tests and exposure data, Jones refused.

Ron DeSantis' Plan to Reopen Florida[edit | edit source]

Re-Open Florida Task Force[edit | edit source]

On April 20th, 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced his "Re-Open Florida Task Force" plan, as a statewide stay-at-home order was soon set to expire.[1] The decision to reopen followed the release of President Trump's guidelines for states to reopen that left much of the process up to governors. The central prerequisite for reopening was for states to show that coronavirus cases were decreasing. The executive committee of the task force consisted of major leaders in Florida, including the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, the Lieutenant Governor of Florida, the Florida Chief Financial Officer, the Mayor of Miami-Dade County, the President and CEO of Enterprise Florida, Inc., the President of Walt Disney World Resort, the CEO of Publix, and the CEO of Universal Orlando.[2] The companies represented in the executive committee comprise some of the largest employers of Floridians, so it was evident that decisions made were heavily influenced by business interests and may have overlooked public health concerns. To support his decision to reopen the state, DeSantis would use the official numbers presented publicly on the COVID-19 dashboard that Jones worked on.

Jones' Response & Removal from the COVID-19 Dashboard Team[edit | edit source]

In early May, discrepancies began appearing between data presented on the dashboard and data that could be obtained by exporting data files from the dashboard. There were internal concerns about these discrepancies; Jones alleges that she was asked to change the cumulative COVID-19 case numbers to appear lower than they actually were to better support DeSantis' plan for reopening the state. Jones alleges that her superiors wanted case numbers to reflect that Florida was ready to lift the stay-at-home order, despite the continued high and rising case numbers in rural areas of the state. Jones was allegedly instructed to lower case numbers and to disable exporting data files to the general public, because this data did not match what was presented on the dashboard. Jones refused on both accounts, claiming that it was unethical to restrict access to public health data and to not be transparent about the severity of the pandemic in the state of Florida at the time. Following her refusal, Jones was permanently removed from the dashboard team and went on leave from her role. Her dismissal raised concerns amongst researchers regarding the impartiality of Florida's dashboard. In response to her removal from the role, DeSantis alleged that Jones "didn't mean to suggest the data might be less reliable now that she's not in charge" and that "she just needed a break, and that was why she's no longer there."[3]

Florida Department of Health Fires Rebekah Jones[edit | edit source]

On May 18th, after refusing an offer to resign, Jones was fired from the Florida Department of Health (DOH) for insubordination.[4] The justifications for her termination provided by the DOH included: publicly discussing her work without permission, making decisions on the dashboard without consulting her team, releasing unauthorized charts, and making raw data available for export that did not match what was presented on the dashboard. Jones went on to file a complaint for wrongful termination and was later granted whistleblower status by the Florida Office of Inspector General in May of 2021.

Hacked Emergency Response System[edit | edit source]

Incident and Police Response[edit | edit source]

On November 10th, 2020, Florida's ESF-8 emergency communications system was hacked, with a message sent out to ESF-8 members begging them to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead.”[5][6] A month later, a search warrant was sent out for Rebekah, and her family was raided by the police on December 7th.[7] According to police, they were able to trace the emergency message back to Rebekah’s home IP address, giving just grounds for a search. Nevertheless, the search itself was conducted in a strange manner; the officers pointed guns at Rebekah and her family upon entering[7][8]. This may have been a scare tactic by the Florida government to shut down dissenters, but it is important to mention that the police only drew guns and went inside after 23 minutes of un-cooperation from Rebekah’s household[9].

Florida weekly COVID-19 cases screenshot from April 2020 to April 2021 as per CDC reports

Message Precursor[edit | edit source]

The message was sent after a few spikes in covid cases that occurred just after Florida began reopening the state. Phase 2 reopening allowed for 50% or even full indoor capacity for restaurants, gyms, museums, etc.[10] Shortly afterwards, weekly covid cases increased tenfold.[11] A few months later on September 25, Florida entered phase 3 reopening, which was seeing a similar spike in cases.[12] This is the time the message was sent, giving the impression that it is an objection to the phase 3 reopening plan, based on how poorly phase 2 went. This may not justify hacking an emergency communications system, but it does justify the point of the message. In fact, since the message was sent, there have been 70,000 more COVID deaths in Florida alone[11].

Outcomes[edit | edit source]

Nebulous Plea Deal[edit | edit source]

Instead of holding a trial, the prosecution sent Rebekah a series of deferred prosecution agreements (DPA). According to Grant Stern, the executive director of occupy democrats, a document was leaked revealing that the most recent plea deal (as of September 2021) asked her to “withdraw all pending complaints” with the Florida government in regards to retaliation.[13][14] Rebekah claims this deal was harsher than the original DPA and that it was sent a day after she won Florida’s democratic primary for Congress.[15] Once again this gives the impression that Desantis and the existing Florida government was trying to strongarm her into submission. She eventually settled for a DPA in December 2022 that did not ask her to withdraw any formal complaints, but did force her to admit guilt for abusing the emergency system (among other penalties). Rebekah claims that she only admitted guilt because she wanted the case dismissed.[16]

Conclusions and Takeaways from Professional Ethics[edit | edit source]

It is ambiguous whether Rebekah’s removal from the COVID dashboard and subsequent firing were justified. The Office of Inspector General deemed some of her claims unsubstantiated due to insufficient evidence;[17] evidence may become more clear once Rebekah’s new retaliation lawsuit goes to trial.[18] Though Rebekah did have a history of insubordination and even run-ins with the law,[19][20] she is an educated geographer and data scientist,[21] and recent news of vaccine safety data being altered gives her some credibility.[22] The ESF-8 message remains ambiguous as well due to the case being settled out of trial.

Nevertheless, the issues surrounding Rebekah provide a counterpoint to the assumption of legality as a standard for ethics. If a government is corrupt, then their laws have no ethical backing, and illegal actions are justifiable. It is the political parallel to corporate insubordination. Gandhi understood this when he started his salt march and campaign of civil disobedience.[23] The laws on domestic salt production were enacted by the British to force poor Indian citizens to buy expensive British salt. It was a blatantly unethical rule, but because it was a law, illegal action was the only way to fight against it. If we are to trust Rebekah’s claims of corruption, then her actions are completely justified as a means of civil disobedience.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Rozsa, Lori (April 20, 2020). "Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looks to open the state to business again". The Washington Post. 
  2. "Governor Ron DeSantis' Re-Open Florida Task Force". Retrieved 2023-05-08.
  3. Allen, Greg (May 19, 2020). "Florida Dismisses A Scientist For Her Refusal to Manipulate State's Coronavirus Data". National Public Radio. 
  4. "Fired Florida Data Scientist Creates Competing COVID-19 Tracking Site and Suggests State Is Hiding Important Information". Time. 2020-06-15. Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  5. Florida Division of Emergency Management. (2020). 2020 Florida Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.
  6. Ross, A. (Nov. 27, 2020). Florida’s emergency communications channel hacked, according to state official. Tampa Bay Times.
  7. a b Tolan, C. (Dec. 8, 2020). Florida police raid home of former state Covid-19 data scientist. CNN.
  8. Jones, R. (April 17, 2023) Whistleblower: A Timeline of the Media Spectacle. MissInformational.
  9. Plessinger, G. FDLE releases full body camera footage from Rebekah Jones search warrant. Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
  10. Florida Department of State. (June 5, 2020). FAQs for PHASE 2.
  11. a b Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory.
  12. Florida Department of State. (Sep. 25, 2020). OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR EXECUTIVE ORDER NUMBER 20-244.
  13. Stern, G. (Sep. 7, 2022). Leaked documents depict politicized prosecution of Florida whistleblower. The Stern Facts.
  14. (2022). Rebekah-Jones-DPA-Emails [Leaked Emails]. Document Cloud.
  15. Jones, R. (Dec. 8, 2022). State of Florida agrees to dismiss case against whistleblower Rebekah Jones. GeoJones.
  16. Jones, R. [@GeoRebekah]. (Feb. 12, 2023). extortion for getting the case dismissed. [Tweet]. Twitter.
  17. Office of Inspector General. (March 9, 2022). Investigative Report OIG 21-117.
  18. Rosica, J. (March 13, 2023). Years after firing, Rebekah Jones now suing state of Florida to get job back. City & State Florida.
  19. Farrington, B. (May 23, 2020). Public remarks prompted Florida virus data curator’s firing. Associated Press.
  20. Matat, S. (July 22, 2020). Criminal Stalking Case Against Fired Florida Health Data Scientist To Drag Into August. WUFT.
  21. Jones, R. Education. GeoJones.
  22. Sarkissian, A. (April 24, 2023). Florida surgeon general altered key findings in study on Covid-19 vaccine safety. Politico.
  23. Pletcher, K. (February 12, 2023). Salt March. Encyclopedia Britannica.