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FLORIDA TODAY's Isadora Rangel talks to investigations reporter Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon about the termination of Florida's COVID-19 data chief. Florida Today

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Governor Ron DeSantis downplayed allegations that the scientist in charge of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard was dismissed because of her dedication to transparency and accessibility, calling the affair a "non issue," though other emails indicate internal health department tension over access to the data. 

"I don't know who she is, but they gave me an email that she sent to her supervisor said that, you know, uh-oh, I may have said something that was misrepresented," DeSantis said at his 5 p.m. press conference in response to a question from a reporter. 

Rebekah Jones who until Monday was a Department of Health Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager, on Friday last week sent an email to a group of researchers and data users in which she said she had been removed from her role in charge of the dashboard as of May 5.

"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.

DeSantis said that what Jones' meant in that email is that the team "are busy and can't answer every single email."

DeSantis indicated that Jones was simply "tired" and "needed a break from working two months straight."

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"I'm proud of the folks who work on it, and particularly those folks who, you know, the skilled epidemiologists and those folks who are really good and data science," he said, promising to provide the email Jones sent to her supervisor.

That email was provided by the governor's office Tuesday evening.

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"Is this one of those stupid things I shouldn't have said?" Jones wrote. "I really don't want this to be a story," she added, signing off "Please help me."

Shortly after the Governor finished speaking, his spokeswoman Helen Ferre, released an statement, which impugned Jones' job performance. The dashboard previously was lauded by Dr. Deborah Birx a top official of the White House coronavirus task force. 

The statement said Jones was terminated because "Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination ... including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors. The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team."

"Accuracy and transparency are always indispensable, especially during an unprecedented public health emergency such as COVID-19,  the statement continues. "Having someone disruptive cannot be tolerated during this public pandemic, which led the Department to determine that it was best to terminate her employment."

Requests for Jones' personnel file and all email correspondence have not yet been met. 

Jones did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

However, data user comments on the DOH website as well as those researchers with whom FLORIDA TODAY spoke indicate Jones was a responsive professional, and was widely praised her for her work. Some researchers feared her dismissal could mean that Tallahassee might censor the data to support the governor's push to re-open the state. 

"Rebekah, Thank you very much. Again, we appreciate the work your team is doing. Be safe," one user wrote. 

Emails obtained by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and shared with FLORIDA TODAY, Jones appeared to push back on demand by Jones' superiors to make the data less accessible. 

"Let’s get the web populated in a way that doesn’t expose the raw data to those who don’t need access," wrote Director for Division of Disease Control and Health Protection director Carina Blackmore in a May 5 email.

This followed emailed instructions on May 4 from IT director Craig Curry that "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.

Jones replied stating this was the "wrong call."

But instructions to revoke access to data came earlier in the day on May 4 as Jones first wrote an email to Curry expressing concern over such a move.

"I'm not pulling our primary resources for coronavirus data because he wants to stick it to journalists and make them copy and past from the tables in the pdfs," she wrote in an email to colleagues. It is unclear who the "he" Jones refers to is.

"If it's in the dashboard it's public. Period. There's no way around that," she wrote.

That access was revoked and then brought back last week.

Neither the governor's office or Department of Health have answered why access to the ability to export data from the dashboard was restricted for several days. There was also a column of data that disappeared and then came back.

"Whenever you have data disappearing and coming back, that causes integrity issues," says Jennifer Larsen a researcher at the University of Central Florida's LabX.

The data also changed format over time. Initially it was available at one internet portal, but then was split it into separate portals without warning, these portals then changed address over the last several weeks. This again, Larsen explains, causes problems for researchers trying to validate historical data. 

"We would hope that Florida would make accessible the historical data in the interest of transparency," Larsen said. A request for such data but Larsen and her colleagues was met with a reply that they would have to wait over a year to request it. But releasing this data would ease concerns about any altering of the numbers.

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DeSantis has promised that policy decisions to re-open the state would be "data-driven."

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and several Florida State Representatives and the Chair of the Florida Democratic Party have called for an investigation in Jones' dismissal.

Tampa Bay Congresswoman Kathy Castor penned a letter to the Governor and Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkes demanding the state "fully report all COVID-19 public health data without censorship." 

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact him at 321-355-8144, or asassoon@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @alemzs

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