(TNS) - One day before a top Florida Department of Health data manager was taken off her role maintaining the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, officials had directed her to remove data from public view that showed Floridians reported symptoms of the disease before cases were officially announced, according to internal emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
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 the point person for questions about the department’s “Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard.” She implied her removal was an act of retribution.
Jones did not respond to requests for comment.
The dashboard, which gives daily updates on numbers of deaths, cases and tests for the coronavirus in every county in the state, is relied upon by officials, journalists, academics and residents who want as much information as possible about the deadly pandemic.
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 users” listserv, Jones said she was reassigned on May 5 “(f)or reasons beyond my division’s control” and warned that the staff taking 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.”
Florida Today reported on the email Monday evening.
Emails sent within the department on 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 January 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 on May 4., data still included the EventDate field, showing records with listed dates that people reported symptoms as early as January 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. A week 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 I.T. Director Craig Curry emailed Rebekah 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 I.T. director emailed both Jones and Dr. Blackmore. “Re-enable for now please.”
Jones replied, “10-4.”
Neither Dr. 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.”
©2020 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
Visit the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) at www.tampabay.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.