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DeSantis Changes His Tone Over Ousted DOH COVID Researcher

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question at a news conference at the Urban League of Broward County, during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Lynne Sladky
AP Photo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to a question at a news conference at the Urban League of Broward County, during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Governor Ron DeSantis says the woman ousted from the Florida Department of Health over what the state says was “insubordination” was not the person who designed the state’s COVID-19 database.

That runs counter to a feature on Rebekah Jones out of Syracuse University, her alma mater, published earlier this year.

“For Jones, it was no easy task. Short-staffed, she tackled the project by herself, hunkering down with GIS mapping software for a weekend of coding, accessing databases and consolidating millions of lines of data to develop the dashboard. She drew on the interdisciplinary foundation that she built at Syracuse, combining her scientific knowledge with graphic and web interface design skills. For the basic idea, she initially consulted the global coronavirus map produced by Johns Hopkins University. She also kept in mind what would be useful to not only the general public, but academic and private researchers doing modeling projects involving the virus,” the article reads.

Jones says she was fired for refusing to manipulate data, but the state says it removed her for what DeSantis’ spokeswoman Helen Ferre says was “a repeated course of insubordination including “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,” Ferre said in a statement to reporters

Asked about the termination at a Tuesday press conference, DeSantis initially brushed the issue off, saying he didn’t know Jones and calling the uproar a “non-issue.”

Wednesday, reporters asked about it again during a media availability with Vice President Mike Pence. DeSantis claimed Jones, whose curriculum vitae states she holds dual degrees in geography and journalism from Syracuse, along with a Masters in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University, and includes work on a Ph.D. in Geography at Florida State University, was not a data scientist.

Her resume lists previous positions such as GIS specialist, geospatial analyst and most recently, SES GIS Manager at the Florida Department of Health. DeSantis also said Jones should have been fired long before due to charges she’s facing over harassment and stalking.

“Come to find out, she’s also under active criminal charges in the State of Florida. She’s being charged with cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment,” DeSantis said. “I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on because this was many months ago. I have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.”

According to court records, the charges stem from a relationship between Jones and her former student while at Florida State University. The case begins around 2017.

The Florida Democratic Party has called for an independent investigation of Jones’ termination, while state Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) has suggested Jones could file a whistleblower lawsuit against the state. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, has called for the Cabinet to do its own probe of the matter.

A request for comment was met with an automatic email response with the following message:

“I am currently receiving a large number of emails and may not be able to immediately respond. I am not doing interviews at this time. If I have your correct contact information I may reach out. If you're truly interested in helping good people, please consider donating to my parent's gofundme. They lost their house in the Easter tornados in Mississippi."

According to the site, Jones has raised more than 3,000 in the past two days. That’s about half of what the fund has generated since it went up on April 13th. Many of the recent messages show support for Jones following her ouster at the Department of Health.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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