Ousted Scientist Rebekah Jones built the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard before being fired in May, accused of insubordination when she says she refused to manipulate COVID-19 data that was made public on the agency’s website.
But Jones stands by her science, even rebuilding her own COVID-19 website, modeled after the one she built for Florida’s DOH. Jones told Time she realized she should build another COVID-19 dashboard with the information she said was being withheld by the DOH.
“It’s a pandemic; it’s a public health crisis and access to whatever data we have is critical to understand what has happened and from that model what might happen,” she said.
Now, Floridians have two COVID-19 dashboards to choose from, and there is a discrepancy of 8,000 cases between them.
Heavy reached out to the Florida Department Health and Jones to try to understand why there is such a big difference in the number of COVID-19 cases being reported in the state.
The Department of Health Says Jones’ Numbers Are Invalid While Jones Says She Uses The Same Information as They Do Since She Was the One Who Built Their COVID-19 Dashboard in the First Place
Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis said about Jones’ being dismissed from the DOH, “What she was doing was she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” according to Time.
The Department of Health still accuses Jones of using invalid or unsubstantiated information. But Jones categorically denies the accusations that her work is not based in science.
Alberto Moscoso, the Director of Communications at the Florida Department of Health told Heavy in an email: “Rebekah Jones’ (RJ) Dashboard aggregates disparate sets of data without considering many of the important guidelines utilized by epidemiologists to arrive at their conclusions.”
Jones told Heavy that is not true, writing in an email, “I gathered and processed all those datasets myself at DOH so if anyone would know which to use and how to use it, it’d be me.”
Another accusation of the DOH is that they use official sources to aggregate their numbers that Jones does not use, saying, “The Rebekah Jones’ Dashboard sources much of its data directly from the Department’s Dashboard. The remainder is either self-reported or derived from unofficial sources.”
Jones says that is also untrue, writing about her new COVID-19 dashboard, she says, “All data for FCA is copied directly from the PDF reports that DOH publishes on its own website every day. The hospital data is the direct data from the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA), which is the state’s authoritative source for case information. There is no data on the dashboard about cases, deaths, hospitalizations, or testing results that does not come directly from DOH itself.”
Jones said Moscoso’s accusation that her information is “self-reported or derived from official sources “is provably false and defamatory.”
Antibody Tests Are Not Counted by the Department of Health in Their Total Case Count, But Jones Includes Those Numbers in Her Overall Count
The reason for the substantial increase in the number of cases reported by Jones is that Jones includes positive antibody tests in her total case county, which can show if you had COVID-19 in the recent past. With the antibody tests included, positive case counts swell by 8,000 cases in current counts.
The DOH maintains that antibody tests are unreliable. According to Moscoso:
Antibody tests are not typically used or considered effective for diagnosing cases of COVID-19…In many cases, individuals who test positive for antibodies are subsequently given a diagnostic test to confirm that they are in fact COVID-19 positive. The RJ Dashboard fails to account for individuals who have received both tests. This results in the double-counting of many cases and an artificially elevated total case count.
Jones said, “Providing data on how many people received molecular, antibody, or both tests is critical in understanding the spread of the virus in our communities. Also – just because a person who tested positive for antibodies “may subsequently” become a case does not negate the results of the antibody test. All of these issues could be resolved if DOH just released the data.”
The DOH does provide information on antibody tests on their COVID-19 website, which is updated every Friday. But as far as whether or not people are tested for COVID-19 after a positive antibody test, which the DOH said could lead to “double-counting,” Jones says, “DOH does not provide any data or information that proves there is cross-testing between cases and antibody testing, and has, in fact, previously stated that they removed cases from the antibody totals.”
“If it’s so unreliable, why are they publishing the results?” Jones said.
Jones says she uses the antibody test results in the main number that reports all cases of COVID. She does not include them in other aspects of her site data.
“I only use DOH data for cases in calculating hospitalizations/rates and deaths/rates,” Jones told Heavy. “I also provide the DOH case count again on the testing page on the left column, and the antibody testing data is clearly distinguished and separated in the next column.”
Essentially, while the cases are included in the big red number labeled, “All positive persons since March 1, 2020,” if you go to the testing tab the results of the COVID-19 test results are listed separately from the results of the antibody tests.
According to the CDC, antibody tests should not be used to diagnose the virus. That’s because you could have COVID-19 but antibodies build over time so they wouldn’t show up until later. Yet they can help measure cases that were not caught while the person was infected.
The concern over antibody testing has never been that there is some massive false-positive rate. In fact, quite the opposite is true – you’re far more likely to get a false negative or for the test to fail than you are to receive a false positive. The concern has always been that people will receive a positive antibody test and assume they are recovered, immune, or unable to spread the virus, and will behave differently under those assumptions. The test is fairly dependable in detecting the presence of the virus in a person – not whether they are safe from getting sick/sicker or unable to spread it.
Jones’ COVID-19 Dashboard Shows That Only 1 County in Florida Meets the Standards For The Next Phase of Reopening
Jones’ dashboard includes several tabs that the Health Department does not. It will tell you how many open ICU beds there are in individual hospitals. It gives Florida counties grades on how they’re doing on social distancing. It will tell you the unemployment percentage of each county in the state, and it will tell you which counties are meeting the criteria to move on to their next phase of reopening.
According to the site, only one county out of 68 meets the criteria, and that is Liberty County in the Panhandle. The criteria to move into the next phase of reopening is a two-weeks long decrease in ER visits for COVID or Flu-like symptoms and a decrease in cases by the end of each two week period.
Heavy reached out to Gov. DeSantis’s office to see what his plan is going forward as Florida’s cases have been steadily increasing, with the DOH reporting 2,783 positive cases in one day on June 15, the most positive cases ever reported in one day.
The governor has not yet replied.
Jones’ Has a GoFundMe That Says,’Florida Deserves a Community-Based Dashboard That Doesn’t Hide or Fudge Numbers’
Since Jones is unemployed, yet keeping up the website with the help of volunteers, she is accepting donations. A GoFundMe has garnered over $165,000 from nearly 4,000 donors from Florida and beyond, all thanking her for her work.
People who donate to the site say things like:
“This is a very important health issue and transparency is life or death important.”
“Thank you for what you’re doing Rebekah. This information is about health, not politics, and it belongs to the public, not the government.”
“Because I really appreciate the transparency and detailed information you provide; especially the hospital bed intel. Thank-you for your service!”
Jones told MSNBC that her site has “already received millions of hits. The outpouring from the community has been so incredible. And for me really shocking because I didn’t even think anybody would care if I did something like this and it’s already kind of blown my mind how supportive everyone’s been.”
As for what Florida state officials may think about Jones’ using the skills she used working for them to build a competing website, she said, “I don’t really think they are in a position to have a reaction anymore after, you know, they fired me for refusing to do something wrong, and then publicly defamed me and have since been quieter about it. Luckily, I’m a private citizen now. It’s public information. There is no position that they can have on redoing this.”
Moscoso said of the DOH COVID-19 dashboard,” The Department’s goal has always been to provide accurate, confirmed information regarding COVID-19 in Florida in as expeditious a manner as is possible. We will continue to employ only official sources of information, ensuring that our online resources are the most factual and up-to-date available.”