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A state scientist questioned Florida’s virus data, now her home’s been raided

Jones’ firing in May became a national flash point as DeSantis touted Florida’s early success in battling the virus — a victory lap that turned out to be premature, given that infections and deaths later surged over the summer, and are rising again.

December 11, 2020 / 10:55 PM IST
Representative image (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)

Representative image (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)

The complicated story of how a Florida data scientist responsible for managing the state’s coronavirus numbers wound up with state police agents brandishing guns in her house this week began seven long months ago, when the scientist, Rebekah D. Jones, was removed from her post at the Florida Department of Health.

Jones had helped build the statistics dashboard showing how the virus was rapidly spreading in a state that had been hesitant to mandate broad restrictions.

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Two months in, Jones was sidelined and then fired for insubordination, a conflict that she said came to a head when she refused to manipulate data to show that rural counties were ready to reopen from coronavirus lockdowns. The specter of possible censorship by the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican allied with President Donald Trump, exploded into the frenetic pandemic news cycle, and Jones’ defiance came to symbolize the growing questions over Florida’s handling of the pandemic.

The arrival of state agents at her home in Tallahassee on Monday to execute a search warrant in a criminal investigation marked a new, dramatic chapter in Jones’ saga, which at its core has always returned to the same basic question: Can Floridians, who are now in the midst of another alarming rise in coronavirus infections and deaths, trust the state’s data?


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“This isn’t really unexpected,” she said of this week’s raid. “You take down a governor, he’s going to come for you. Six months ago, I was just a scientist trying to do my job.”

Jones’ firing in May became a national flash point as DeSantis touted Florida’s early success in battling the virus — a victory lap that turned out to be premature, given that infections and deaths later surged over the summer, and are rising again. DeSantis cast Jones as a disgruntled ex-employee who is not an epidemiologist and whose claims about a lack of data transparency were unfounded.

The tiff with the governor turned Jones, 31, into a cause célèbre. By June, she had built her own dashboard to rival the state’s, funded in part by donations from hundreds of thousands of newfound followers on social media.

Jones has spent months publicly urging health department employees to denounce what she says has been the manipulation and obfuscation of virus data to make Florida look better off than it really is. In July, she filed a formal whistleblower complaint.

But questions remain about why she was fired. State officials insist that her claims about hiding virus data are false. She was dismissed, they said, because she made unilateral decisions to modify the virus dashboard without approval.

“Our data is available,” DeSantis said when Jones was fired. “Our data is transparent. In fact, Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data,” he added, referring to Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the head of the White House’s coronavirus response, who had praised the state dashboard when Jones was overseeing it.

“So any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun,” DeSantis concluded.

The new dashboard Jones set up surfaces some data about virus cases that had been buried deep in PDF files on the state website and generally shows a higher number of cases than the number reported by the state. It also includes information from other agencies, such as hospitalization rates from the Agency for Health Care Administration that are not on the state dashboard.

But hers has remained a mostly one-woman operation. Though several of her former co-workers have recently left the department, they have not spoken publicly about why they stopped working there, nor have they joined Jones’ cause.

The story took a surprising new turn on Monday morning, when agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement appeared at the door of Jones’ town home.

“Come outside!” one of the agents barked as she stepped out and put her hands up. “Outside!”

The first agent stepped in and ordered Jones’ husband to come downstairs. Two other agents followed with guns drawn. One pointed his weapon upstairs, where Jones’ 11-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter had been sleeping.

“He just pointed a gun at my children!” Jones yelled.

The agents had come to serve a search warrant for Jones’ computers and other electronics. Jones posted a 31-second video clip of the agents’ arrival to Twitter on Monday afternoon, creating new outrage against DeSantis, who in the eyes of her supporters has continued to try to downplay the virus.

The search was part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized messages sent last month to a group of health department employees using an internal emergency alert system.

“It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” read the messages — approximately 1,750 of them — sent on Nov. 10. “You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”

According to an affidavit supporting the search of the town home, investigators traced the messages to Jones’ Internet Protocol address, a unique number sequence assigned to each computer connected to the web.

She denied having anything to do with the messages. Florida had reported 17,460 coronavirus deaths at the time, and she said she would never have rounded that number down.

According to the affidavit, the users on the emergency alert group account shared the same username and password, which cybersecurity experts said left the system vulnerable to a breach that could be difficult to trace.

“That’s textbook bad security practice, and this is an example of why — it’s cumbersome to revoke access and hard to attribute actions to the responsible people,” said J. Alex Halderman, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Michigan.

Stephen S. Dobson III, Jones’ criminal defense attorney, said the password to the system was written on at least three boards at the Department of Health. He suggested that Jones’ IP address was “spoofed,” or impersonated by someone else.

“And it is just complete overreach for FDLE to come in with guns out, pointing guns at people,” he said.

Within the seized electronics, which included computers, cellphones and thumb drives, was information from contacts inside the health department to whom Jones had promised confidentiality, she said.

The Department of Law Enforcement denied that agents pointed their weapons at anybody and released body camera footage on Thursday showing how agents repeatedly knocked on Jones’ door and called her cellphone to announce the search warrant. They wondered at first if no one was home and then, after seeing people inside, whether they would have to break the door to enter. Jones came to the door about 23 minutes after the agents arrived, they said. (Jones said it was not clear from the start whether they had a search warrant.)

“Agents afforded Ms. Jones ample time to come to the door and resolve this matter in a civil and professional manner,” Commissioner Richard L. Swearingen of the Department of Law Enforcement said in a statement.

A spokesman for DeSantis said the governor had no knowledge of the investigation until Jones publicized the raid.

Florida publishes quite a bit of coronavirus data, but DeSantis and his administration have also contributed to the perception that the state has not been fully transparent.

Early on, state agencies refused to release information about the number of coronavirus hospitalizations and cases in long-term care facilities, and only provided it after news organizations threatened litigation. Florida still does not provide a comprehensive list of outbreaks at businesses and other public places.

County health administrators have been limited in what they are allowed to say. The state surgeon general has made few public appearances since he acknowledged in April that social distancing and other measures would most likely have to be in place until the advent of a vaccine, for “probably a year, if not longer.”

But Jones has not been universally embraced as a whistleblower. Some critics have dismissed her lack of public health training. Others have been made uncomfortable by the attention she has sought — sometimes tagging late-night host Stephen Colbert, for example, in her Twitter posts. (She says it is a gag to bring levity to her dark social media feed.)

Her dashboard shows a higher total number of cases than the state’s official records because it includes the number of positive antibody tests, something the Department of Health and outside epidemiologists do not recommend. Jones has reacted defensively to some of their criticism on Twitter.

The search warrant served this week did not represent Jones’ first brush with the law. She faced a number of criminal charges in Florida, including criminal mischief and violation of a domestic violence injunction, all involving a relationship with one of her students when she was a graduate assistant at Florida State University. None of them resulted in a conviction, but last year, Tallahassee prosecutors charged Jones with cyberstalking the man.

Her lawyer wrote in a court filing this week that Jones had agreed to a plea deal in that case, but prosecutors rescinded it shortly before Monday’s raid.

At the state health department, Jones was earning a salary of $47,999. Since her termination, she has raised more than $250,000 in a GoFundMe account created by her sister, and also founded a for-profit company that accepts undisclosed donations. Jones has a separate nonprofit as part of a project that tracks coronavirus cases in schools.

This week, she opened a new GoFundMe account, this time to fund her legal defense. Her video of the raid has been shared more than 137,000 times, including by actors, scientists and members of Congress.

The fundraising appeal quickly surpassed her initial $150,000 goal. She raised her target to $1 million, then scaled it back to $500,000, saying she would need the money for bail, if she were arrested, and to take care of her family.

“It will also go to finding a new place to live outside of Florida so I can continue to do this important reach out of Ron DeSantis’ administration,” she said in a text message. “I can do this work from anywhere.”

(Author: Patricia Mazzei)/(c.2020 The New York Times Company) 
New York Times

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