A Duel Over Data (Or, Three Cheers for Rebekah Jones)
On April 20, 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, praised the Florida Department of Health website for its useful detail:
“The Florida Department of Health’s website is extraordinary, and this is what every department of health should have…. When you inform the public and give them the information that they need, then they can make decisions along with the local government and governors…. It’s by Zip Code and it’s by county. They can see cases; they can see cumulative cases; they can see new cases; they can see hospitalizations; they can see mortality; they can see age groups of mortality; and they can see where every testing piece is. This is how we have to inform the American public, and this is where the American public will develop confidence in each of their counties and local governments.”
On that same day, a blog post at the website of ESRI, the company behind the ArcGIS program used for many state COVID-19 dashboards and the dashboard created by Johns Hopkins, featured a story about the Florida COVID-19 Dashboard and the GIS manager for the Florida Department of Health, who had configured the dashboard and managed it in consultation with three Dept. of Health teams. Her name, one many readers may know by now, is Rebekah Jones. Blog post authors Este Geraghty (MD, MS, MPH, GISP) and Ryan Lanclos praised her qualifications for creating the Florida dashboard:
“With her education and experience, Jones was well poised to build the dashboard. She completed dual majors in geography and journalism for her undergraduate degree from Syracuse University, earned a master’s degree in geography with a minor in mass communications from Louisiana State University with a focus on crisis communication, and has completed coursework for a PhD in geography from Florida State University with an emphasis on data science.”
It was, of course, the data science component of Jones’s doctorate in geography that would prepare her to configure the dashboard. And she made it happen quickly. The Governor’s Office requested a dashboard on March 10. They had one by March 16, and within a few weeks Florida’s dashboard had been viewed 50 million times.
In the ESRI post, Geraghty and Lanclos noted Jones’s concern with the integrity and transparency of the data:
“For the research community, Jones has been careful to document details about the data, providing a guide that explains every field and how it’s calculated. This information also comes with clearly communicated caveats and limitations. For instance, virus recovery data doesn’t appear on Florida’s dashboard because it’s a data point that scientists have trouble defining.”
You can read the ESRI post in its entirety here: “COVID-19: Dedicated Scientist in Florida Made Quick Moves to Map the Disease,”
When Rebekah Jones was subsequently fired from her job on May 18, it was the Palm Beach Post that broke the story. According to Jones, she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data to justify the state’s reopening. (“Coronavirus: Florida scientist said she was fired for refusing to ‘manipulate’ COVID-19 data,” https://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/20200519/coronavirus-florida-scientist-said-she-was-fired-for-refusing-to-lsquomanipulatersquo-covid-19-data)
That story was picked up in many places, and interviews followed. Without going deeply into the weeds, we can offer several sources for interested readers to delve into. We will leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about what happened in connection with COVID-19 data in Florida.
The Tampa Bay Times published an in-depth report on the incident and events leading up to it:
“Florida Health Department manager told to delete coronavirus data is ousted,” https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2020/05/19/florida-health-department-officials-told-manager-to-delete-coronavirus-data-before-reassigning-her-emails-show/.
Jones offered her own account in a 7-minute NPR Interview that aired on June 29: “Florida Scientist Says She Was Fired for Not Manipulating COVID-19 Data,” https://www.npr.org/2020/06/29/884551391/florida-scientist-says-she-was-fired-for-not-manipulating-covid-19-data. I’ve excerpted two paragraphs from the transcript of that interview:
“I was asked by DOH leadership to manually change numbers. This was a week before the reopening plan officially kicked off into phase one. I was asked to do the analysis and present the findings about which counties met the criteria for reopening. The criteria followed more or less the White House panel’s recommendations, but our epidemiology team also contributed to that as well. As soon as I presented the results, they were essentially the opposite of what they had anticipated. The whole day while we’re having this kind of back and forth changing this, not showing that, the plan was being printed and stapled right in front of me. So it was very clear at that point that the science behind the supposedly science-driven plan didn’t matter because the plan was already made….
“The whole next week was a lot of manipulating things and a lot of back and forth with the epidemiologists, who were extremely uncomfortable with the way that this was being managed. And then eventually the night before the first phase of reopening, I was asked to actually delete and then hide data from the public. I said I wanted in writing that directive from my boss telling me to do that before I would do it. I said it was the wrong call, and it was a mistake to have this information that was available to the public and just take it away. I mean, I had set up the data feeds to report directly to the CDC, to Johns Hopkins. Our department emergency management depended on this data feed, every press outlet in the state and country. I worked very hard to make sure that everybody had access to this data and that it was right every day. And as soon as we took it down, all of those links essentially broke and crashed all of their websites. So less than an hour later, I was asked to put it back up, and then the next day, I was told I was no longer working on the dashboard.”
Second, we turn to Governor DeSantis’s response. When questioned about Jones’s firing, Governor DeSantis had this to say when questioned by a Fox 13 News reporter on May 20 (“DeSantis on firing of Florida COVID-19 dashboard data scientist,” https://www.fox13news.com/video/686230):
“So, first of all, okay, so (1) she’s not, she’s not a data scientist. She’s somebody that’s got a degree in journalism, communication, and geography. She is not involved in collating any data. She does not have the expertise to do that. She is not an epidemiologist. She is not the chief architect of our web portal: that is another false statement. And what she was doing, she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data. So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors. She had many people above her in the chain of command, and so then she was dismissed because of that and because of a bunch of different reasons about how she did.
“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. So 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, so her supervisor dismissed her because of a lot of those reasons, and it was a totally valid way, but she should have been dismissed long before that.
Kotok note to readers: this assertion by DeSantis has been greeted by disbelief and lack of proof about veracity on his part. Jones has extensively answered his assertion. So far no criminal charge against Jones has been validated.
We will continue DeSantis’ quote: “Our data is available. Our data is transparent. In fact, Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data, so any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun; and part of the reason is that, because you got a lot of people in your profession who wax poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York. Wait two weeks, Florida’s going to be next. Just wait too weeks. Well, hell, we’re eight weeks away from that, and it hasn’t happened. Not only do we have a lower death rate – well, we have way lower deaths generally – we have a lower death rate than the Acela corridor; we have a lower death rate than DC, everyone up there; we have a lower death rate than the Midwest – Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio; but even in our region – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia – Florida has the lower death rate, and I was the number one landing spot from tens of thousands of people leaving the number one hot zone in the world to come to my state. So we’ve succeeded, and I think that people just don’t want to recognize it because it challenges their narrative, challenges their assumption, so they gotta try to find a boogeyman; maybe it’s that there are black helicopters circling the Department of Health. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell ya.”
Kotok note to readers: I don’t want to buy DeSantis’ bridge. Meanwhile, look at what he alleges in his statement and then go and examine the death data for Florida yourself. The weekly death count for Florida has just set a new all-time Covid record. Let’s get back to Jones.
Jones responded to the situation by creating her own coronavirus dashboard for Florida, funded by public support, putting to rest the question of whether she was capable of such things (“Fired scientist Rebekah Jones builds coronavirus dashboard to rival Florida’s,” https://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/20200611/fired-scientist-rebekah-jones-builds-coronavirus-dashboard-to-rival-floridarsquos).
According to her data (which is updated daily and in some cases every 30 minutes, since she still has access to the Department of Health’s raw data), Florida has had considerably more cases than the state reports and more deaths. Jones carefully explains on the site how she arrives at her numbers.
Here is the official Florida dashboard today: https://fdoh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/8d0de33f260d444c852a615dc7837c86
Jones’s dashboard is here: https://floridacovidaction.com/.
A quick comparison of the two reveals differences in the level of detailed information offered. Jones’s site includes information on health and hospitals (including available ICU beds for hospitals that are reporting); local information such as cases by Zip Code; information on local impacts such as unemployment; and an assessment, county by county, of whether each county meets the criteria for reopening (most don’t). Many Floridians look to floridacovidaction.com for information and even support Jones’s work on the Florida Covid Action Dashboard through a GoFundMe. Her counts differ from the state’s, and how each number is obtained on the dashboard is explained on the website. For example, she counts people who die of COVID-19 in Florida even if their permanent residence is elsewhere. The state website does not.
Jones’s differences with the state regarding Florida’s handling of data did not end with her firing. She has since claimed that data manipulation by the Department of Health continues, with the intent of making Florida’s situation look better than it actually is (“Rebekah Jones renews COVID-19 criticism. DeSantis says it’s a ‘conspiracy bandwagon’,”Tampa Bay Times https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2020/06/24/rebekah-jones-renews-covid-19-criticism-desantis-says-its-a-conspiracy-bandwagon/).
Finally, we’re offered an update through her attorney, Rick Johnson, that was aired July 24 on the PBS television public affairs program, Florida This Week, that readers can catch the replay of here: https://www.pbs.org/video/friday-july-24-2020-mj9rvw/
So where does this tug of war between a data manager and a governor motivated by recovering his state’s economy leave us? Even in the worst of times, people feel safer if they believe they can trust their leaders to give the reliable data they need to make good decisions. Deborah Birx said as much. If they don’t feel they are getting the complete story or the information they need, trust evaporates. Jones reports data with an eye to its accuracy and its usefulness. She is being recognized for her efforts, and not just by news outlets calling for interviews. She will be the keynote speaker at the online National Data Science Conference this year, sponsored by the American Statistical Assoc. and Journal of Data Science. For details, see https://twitter.com/GeoRebekah/status/1280194029494374403?s=20.
I use Rebekah Jones’s site. I want to see data by Zip Code, and I want to know what the ICU bed situation looks like insofar as that can be determined. Accurate data is critical for risk assessment of all kinds and for charting a path forward for policy and business that leads to better outcomes. That’s true in public health. It’s true in investing. It is true in getting the economy opened up and business resumption underway. Right now (noon on July 24), Sarasota County fails all levels and direction of data for Florida Department of Health recommended opening up phases. Detailed examination of Jones data shows that is the case statewide.
Governor DeSantis’s quest for reopening, however, has to be addressed. We left it to him and got a raging forest fire of COVID. Now the situation is in the hands of cities and counties and school boards. There is, frankly, no way to fully close down. Protracted lockdowns are deeply problematic. Everything stops. But rising case counts and hospitalizations teach us that there is no way to freely open up, either, no way to party and proceed as if it’s still the summer of 2019, at least not without sickening many people, perhaps for a long, long time, and killing quite a number of them. We need the attention to providing full and complete data that Rebekah Jones’s efforts represent, and we have to seek a better way to tackle the necessity of reopening. We need both better health outcomes and better economic outcomes. Leadership succeeds when it finds a path forward between extremes. Leadership fails if it doesn’t.
As we’ve learned from this pandemic what can work and what can’t, governors who now chart a path toward a disciplined, science-based, and data-driven reopening that controls viral spread will be credited both with safeguarding public health and with optimizing essential economic functions. They will be laying the groundwork for a recovery that will be positioned to take off once we have a vaccine and/or effective treatments.
In terms of public health, the possible outcomes are straightforward: fewer sick and fewer dead, or more sick and more dead. Flattening the curve is the target we must shoot for, and not just flattening it, but getting the R0, or reproductive number, of this virus below 1 as soon as we can. A flatter and then declining curve gets us closer to vaccine and treatment protocols that can help us resolve the threat that COVID poses. Bending the curve requires mask-wearing (the research is in on this now); contact tracing (we still do not have it); isolating when we have been exposed (impossible to know about asymptomatic carriers without full testing and rapid results); and reconfiguring our workplaces, schools, churches, travel, etc., to enable society to function (the DeSantis government has been a dismal failure in this regard). Given that aerosol spread of the virus appears almost certain, that means looking at our air-handling systems to bring in fresh air instead of recirculated air, or to filter air (in accordance with the ASHRAE standard with UVC light treatment in the air-handling system), or at least to open windows (but how do you open windows when both the temperature and humidity are hovering near 100?) . It also means standardized procedures for sanitizing spaces. And adequate social distancing has to continue to happen, even as we push on with essential economic functions.
Now that there is a COVID-19 forest fire, to use Michael Osterholm’s metaphor, many people are getting scared, so the economy is suffering. Fact is, the economy will not open fully or recover fully when people aren’t feeling safe to get out of their homes or to go back to work. We are reminded again of Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson’s recent study, which we cited in our July 14 commentary, “COVID-19-Aerosols, Retrofitting & Construction, Stock Market Materials Sector,” https://www.cumber.com/cumberland-advisors-market-commentary-covid-19-aerosols-retrofitting-construction-stock-market-materials-sector/. Goolsbee and Syverson found that it wasn’t the lockdowns that drove the strong decline in US economic activity; it was fear of infection risk instead. (“Fear, Lockdown, and Diversion: Comparing Drivers of Pandemic Economic Decline 2020,” Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, June 17, 2020, https://bfi.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/BFI_WP_202080v2.pdf).
At this point we have one contingent of the population that is hunkering down insofar as possible, in a rational abundance of caution, having lost faith in the US COVID response. Most of those who live in Florida have lost trust in their governor. In my personal contact with hundreds of Floridians, I cannot find one who would trust DeSantis with their health advice. The way to fix that is to mount a data-based response that works.
At the same time, another contingent of people feel entirely too safe and engage in risky behavior that’s sure to spread the virus widely. (The messaging has veered too far toward reassurance rather than reality, and course corrections are hard.) Their reckless and socially irresponsible behavior drives a diametrically opposed reaction of concern from people who are better informed of risks and consequences. Those folks stay home as much as they can. They avoid places where they expect people will not be wearing masks.
Rather than marching toward recovery, an economy is set back when people go to crowded parties and bars and beaches and decline to wear masks. The analogy for such reckless behavior, given the transmissibility of virus, is driving drunk and facing a test and penalty if you do. It’s the virus that exacts the most certain penalty now, even where there’s no regulation in place to require a mask or to prohibit large gatherings. The law protects the driver and the rest of us. A drunk driver’s failure to follow the law hurts both the driver and potentially others among us. If a leader proves reckless in responding to the crisis or in modeling the behaviors that mitigate it, the harm done is multiplied, and more than embarrassment results. Public trust is breached.
In recent days, as Florida has seen the number of new cases rising sharply, the State Department of Health has seen the value (perhaps with the help of citizen feedback) of the kind of detailed data Jones has been intent on providing all along. The state has added hospitalization data to its dashboard again (“Florida to Start Reporting Current Covid-19 Hospitalization,” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-30/florida-to-start-reporting-current-covid-19-hospitalization). That’s good news.
As new cases in Florida have topped 10,000 in a day, bars and some beaches across Florida are now closed again (“Florida shatters records with over 10,000 new COVID-19 cases in single day,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-florida/florida-shatters-records-with-over-10000-new-covid-19-cases-in-single-day-idUSKBN243299). COVID-19 hospitalizations surged to a record 517 on Tuesday, July 21 (“Florida coronavirus: State records highest daily increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations,” https://www.wfla.com/news/florida-coronavirus-state-records-highest-daily-increase-in-covid-19-hospitalizations/).
Florida does not require its residents to wear masks statewide, but some Florida cities and communities are requiring them (“Beyond the veil: What face mask requirements are in place in Florida?” https://floridapolitics.com/archives/342364-beyond-the-veil-what-face-mask-requirements-are-in-place-in-florida). Here in Sarasota, some businesses encouraged or required customers to wear masks even before a new ordinance requiring masks went into effect (“Sarasota businesses adapt to masks,” https://www.heraldtribune.com/business/20200703/sarasota-businesses-adapt-to-masks). Governor DeSantis, for his part, has declined to roll back reopening beyond the bars and beaches closures, but encouraged responsible behavior going into the July 4 weekend. DeSantis has, at least, begun leading Floridians by example by wearing a mask in public most of the time now. Will that be enough? Time will tell. Note how other states are now enforcing mask wearing and levying fines and punishment for failure to do so.
In a bold move on Monday, July 6, the State of Florida mandated that all K–12 schools must open their campuses for classes five days a week this fall. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s order states, “There is a need to open schools fully to ensure the quality and continuity of the educational process, the comprehensive well-being of students and families and a return to Florida hitting its full economic stride.” (“Despite rising COVID-19 cases in Florida, state orders public schools to reopen in August,” https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article244039247.html)
Pushback from worried educators has followed, and the Florida Education Association (FEA) has filed a lawsuit, naming DeSantis and Corcoran, to halt the reopening of in-person classes (“Teachers union sues to halt Florida classroom restart during pandemic,” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronvirus-usa-florida/teachers-union-sues-to-halt-florida-classroom-restart-during-pandemic-idUSKCN24L2I3).
The announcement of reopening is one thing, but what are the guidelines for schools? What is the status and the role of testing? How is safety assured? The idea is not to be screaming fire in a movie theater. The idea is how to open schools safely. We must have schools and colleges and economic activity. We cannot have everyone locked down. The idea is to be smart and flexible and to have superbly curated, complete, and high-frequency data so people can trust their government.
This pandemic has its heroes – doctors, nurses, first responders, essential workers, leaders who have tackled the virus threat proactively, and data champions like the hard-working people at the CDC, the John Hopkins team, or Florida’s courageous upstart data manager, Rebekah Jones. I am grateful to Rebekah for her heroism and for her demonstration of responsible citizenship. In recent weeks she has gone beyond keeping us up to date with reliable COVID-19 statistics to providing broader pandemic-response leadership for the State of Florida. On July 7, on Twitter, she posted an interview she did with CBS News in which she was directly and specifically critical of the Florida Dept. of Health’s ongoing suppression of COVID data:
“People trust in their public officials to give them information. Even if we’re sometimes skeptical of that information, we still want to know what’s going on. We want to know what’s being said about what’s going on. And despite all of the progress that I’ve made with my new dashboard, there are still critical information elements that DOH and the state itself has that they’re not releasing.”
On July 15, after the White House directed US hospitals to send their COVID data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jones posted this: “I know everyone is concerned about how the @WhiteHouse interfering with #COVID19 data will impact #Florida. Hopefully it won’t happen, but I will let you know as soon as I know.” (https://twitter.com/GeoRebekah/status/1283392163385094145)
In another post, Jones added some creative thinking that stands in sharp contrast to that of Gov. DeSantis, who goes on resisting calls for a statewide mandate on mask wearing. Jones wrote, “Who else thinks a #mask design competition for schools would be an awesome way to promote mask usage while getting kids involved creatively? Or maybe each kid could design their own mask! Any companies out there interested in helping kids out with this?? #Floridacoronavirus” (https://twitter.com/GeoRebekah/status/1283387801602592769)
You may want to pause for a minute to think about life in a place where a Rebekah Jones might be jailed or killed. Places like China, (including, now, Hong Kong), Russia, Venezuela, and many others. How fortunate we are in these United States that Jones and others like her can still come forward to protect all of us from ills and injustices that may be inflicted on us, sometimes by our own government.
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