COVID-19 surges in Florida after data whistleblower fired
"Somebody needs to put a muzzle on [Trump] before he gets another 100,000 people killed. The United States does not have this under control."
"Somebody needs to put a muzzle on [Trump] before he gets another 100,000 people killed. The United States does not have this under control."
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Donald Trump: Right now, I think it’s under control. I’ll tell you what-
Jonathan Swan: How? 1,000 Americans are dying a day.
Donald Trump: They are dying. That’s true. And it is what it is.
Kim Brown: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Kim Brown. One would think during a global pandemic that elected officials would want to adhere to the advice of public health experts to determine when and how is the best time to reopen parts of our society shut down by COVID-19. But we have actually seen the contrary, starting with Donald Trump’s own attempts to undermine members of his White House Coronavirus Taskforce, and governors in some hotspots, like Texas and Florida, have done the same, outright dismissing public health recommendations, or, as alleged by our next guest, distorting the numbers of positive cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control in order to fit the requisites needed to begin the stages of phase reopening.
Why are scientists being undermined at the expense of thousands of lives lost to COVID? Well, today we’re joined with Rebecca Jones. She is a data scientist and she built the State of Florida’s Coronavirus Reporting Dashboard for the Department of Health. She was let go back in May after she says she refused to alter data to accommodate Florida’s reopening plan. She has since built her own data dashboard at floridacovidaction.com. She joins us today. Rebecca, I don’t think you’re still in Florida. I think you are now in Georgia, is that right?
Rebecca Jones: No, actually, I’m still in Tallahassee. I was out of town when everything happened, but that was actually just coincidence. A good coincidence actually, but no, I’m still in Tallahassee.
Kim Brown: Okay. Brilliant. Well, let’s start there. Let’s actually start in Florida. From the time that you were let go from your position with the state’s health department, what has happened to the coronavirus spread throughout the state of Florida? So now early August.
Rebecca Jones: A lot has happened. It’s been almost three months, which actually, now that I say that out loud, seems insane, both too long ago and too recent. But I was essentially fired after I was asked to do the analysis for reopening criteria, to see which counties were ready to go into the next phase, based on a set of criteria that was outlined by the White House that Florida had kind of tailored to its needs.
After I was fired, less than two weeks later, we rushed our state into phase two, and cases skyrocketed. Florida had the largest single day reporting of cases since the start of this, in every state, of the country. And we also have record desks every day. Today was 225, yesterday was 240. It’s been absolutely awful to watch the progression of this happen, and it was entirely predictable. And I know that because I predicted it. And that’s part of the reason I was fired. I’m doing my part now to try to keep people informed. I don’t have a lot of support the way that I did when I was at DOH, as far as infrastructure goes, but I’m still chugging along with what I’ve got.
Kim Brown: And that leads me to my next question, because your dashboard relies on data provided by the state of Florida, but these are numbers that you say are not exactly correct. So what is truth? How are we to know what is the accurate, either positive case count or even the accurate amount of deaths in the state of Florida?
Rebecca Jones: So it’s true. I do depend on the state figures. I pull in data though, not just from the Department of Health, but also Department of Emergency Management, the Agency for Healthcare Administration and the Department of Corrections. DOH has not modified their dashboard in any progressive manner. They’ve restricted access to some data since then. They’ve deleted some options on the dashboard, but they haven’t added anything to it. So, my site is the only location where you can get all of that information.
And of course, the DOH data, the Department of Health data, never matches the hospital data and the hospital never matches the case data. And the Department of Corrections never matches the DOH either. And so it’s crazy. And what I’ve tried to do, as somebody who worked very intimately with these numbers for a very long time, there’s only one other person in the entire state who’s worked with these numbers longer than I have, is provide context to what that information means, what its limitations are, making it clear that this number says this, but what it really means is that. I’ve really tried to do my best to integrate all of the information that’s out there and available and hard to get, buried in some thousand page PDF that nobody’s ever going to find because it’s in some subfolder of some database the DOH technically publishes, but doesn’t advertise, like cases by city, things like that. Things that you think would be provided to people, that it’s easy to provide because I’m doing it, that they just don’t do.
Kim Brown: In your opinion, I know you’re not a virologist or an epidemiologist, but as a data scientist, and as somebody, like you said, that has worked with these numbers since the onset of this pandemic, what are the public health consequences of either omitting positive case data or fudging the numbers? What does that mean for people who live in Florida?
Rebecca Jones: So, interestingly, I don’t think an epidemiologist would actually be the person to ask about that because they’re very good at detecting where the spread is moving over space and what the virus’s biology is. But what you’re talking about is more of communication. What does hiding information do to the behavior to impact the behavior of people in the state?
And that’s something you would want to ask a geographer like me because we study risk communication quite thoroughly. I actually have an expertise in that area. And when people think cases are down, when they think that deaths are down and hospitalizations are down, what they see as things are getting better. And consequently, they believe that, if things are getting better, that means I can do more. That means that it’s safer for me to go out.
When we have these lags in reporting, testing lags, we’re up to two weeks at some point, I think right now, in Georgia, the average is 12 days, then you’re not really getting a gauge of how many cases are out there right now. You’re talking about two weeks ago. When deaths, you get a case, a person might already be in the hospital or have just gone to the hospital. They might, let’s say, unfortunately, die in a few weeks. And then 10 days later, DOH reports it. You’re again, not getting a current snapshot of what’s going on. It’s something that has already passed, and not having that kind of current information available makes people get this false sense of security.
Like in Florida, the last few days, we’ve had a lower number of cases, but we also shut down testing sites in about two thirds of the state when we thought Hurricane Isaias was going to scale up the East coast. So, you shut down all the testing sites for four days for two thirds of the population of the state, and you’re going to get a lower case amount. Look at the testing numbers. They’re down. We went from 100,000 a day to 40,000 a day. So, that’s unfortunately what happens.
And now people are like, “Look, cases are down.” But you need to have that context in order to understand why that’s happening or what it means. And the state has so absurdly failed at communicating these risks to people. It’s unfortunate because we’re still in phase two, technically, and we’re rushing schools to reopen. Some of them reopened this week.
Kim Brown: Horrifying to say the least. When we look at the role that health departments play, they are there to track the outbreaks of diseases, ranging from salmonella to measles, to sexually transmitted infections, all things to help benefit the further spread of diseases that can harm people. But COVID-19 has proven itself to be quite deadly.
I’m curious, as a public health official or someone who’s worked in that capacity, have you ever seen the deliberate attempt to distort numbers of outbreaks of different diseases as you allege the Department of Health has done in the state of Florida?
Rebecca Jones: No, never, not personally, and I’ve never heard of it happening. And I’m, quite frankly, somewhat shocked that so many people are tolerating it at this point. The other person that I said has worked longer with these numbers, whenever she decides to come forward, she will have the best information that’s available. I was aware of this virus and began working with the Department of Health on it on January 24th. She was involved weeks before that, and she knows about how the data’s changed because she’s being asked to change it. And she’s now running the database system. So every change that’s been requested, she has made it.
And I’m hoping, knowing that person and having worked with her for quite a long time, that she’ll come forward eventually, but it’s unprecedented to ever be asked to change data for any political purpose. My academic research is in climatology, a field that is plagued with rumors of data malfeasance, even though it never happens. And the idea that somebody would have ever asked me to change numbers for either side of the political spectrum is so outrageous and offensive that, when I was asked to do it in a public health capacity, actually laughed in the face of the woman who asked me to do it because I thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t, and I lost my job.
Kim Brown: You have gone public in a very big way about your experiences and what happened to you with the Department of Health. NBC news actually did a report detailing that over 30 public health officials have either resigned, retired, or been fired since the onset of this pandemic because the people who were in charge of them, be it the politicians or state officials, were unsatisfied with the data and the recommendations they were making in terms of keeping things shut down in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.
I wanted to ask you, what has been your personal experience? Have you been targeted? Have you been harassed by people? Have people threatened you based off the information that you have been providing to the public?
Rebecca Jones: Yeah. So, my foray into the public spotlight wasn’t by choice. I did not know that the original article that thrust me into the spotlight was even coming out until I got an email asking me for a quote about it. And so, for me, I hadn’t spoken out, at least not in a public capacity.
There was a story written about how I was taken off the dashboard, having been the person managing it for months. There were a lot of people who noticed the changes and then found out I was removed and thought that was suspicious. And then, I sent an email to people who were emailing me, basically asking me, “Why isn’t the dashboard working? Why is the data changing?” Saying, “Look, I’m not in charge of it. I can’t help you. I can’t answer your questions. These are the people you need to talk to. But essentially, be careful. Things are changing.”
And that email, along with my removal from the dashboard, was the basis for this article that came out, and I didn’t participate in the press circus that happened in the next few days. I was actually out of town and I didn’t answer a single press inquiry. My phone actually stopped working because I was getting so many calls at once. I told everybody, “No comment.”
I didn’t want to be a story. I didn’t want to be involved with any of this. And that didn’t seem to work. I thought for sure people would just move on to the next thing if I didn’t say anything within a few days, and the didn’t. Four days later, it was still my face on every news channel on the hotel lobby where I was staying.
I finally decided that all of these things were being said, and I wasn’t participating. I was cowering, really. It was too late for me not to be in the public light. That choice was taken from me. And so, the best thing I could do was speak out briefly and say, “Look, I’m not important here. What’s important is what’s happening.”
And so, that’s what I did. And then I went away again for like a month, and I saw the skyrocketing cases and everything that happened in the aftermath of me leaving, and felt, honestly, a responsibility to provide a different resource that people could trust. Because when news came out that the dashboard was being manipulated, a large part of the people in the state stopped trusting the dashboard, and they had nowhere to go for information.
I had created that problem, even inadvertently. I had created that void of information for people who knew the dashboard that state was providing, was being messed with, and I felt honestly responsible, and like I had to provide another resource for them because they had nowhere else to go for information. I made sure, when I was managing the data, that our data at DOH was the authoritative, primary and, in most cases, only source for information. And so it was on me to fix that problem.
I knew that, if I rebuilt one, I would have to speak out publicly. I would have to be a presence that’s able to talk about what I’m doing and why. And that’s when I really decided to speak out. That was almost a month after everything happened. So, actually, it was more than a month after I was taken off the dashboard. It took me time.
And when everything first came out, yes, I got a lot of threats. Basically, the governor of my state threatened me in front of the Vice President of the United States. He accused me of basically being a sexual predator and said I wasn’t a scientist, said that I didn’t build the dashboard, which all of these things were false, and since then they’ve been debunked.
Ron DeSantis: 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. Come to find out, she’s also under active criminal charges in the state of Florida. She’s being charged with cyber-stalking 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.
Rebecca Jones: Not three weeks before I was taken off the dashboard, the surgeon general did an interview for my alumni magazine at Syracuse, saying, “I’m so proud of what the GIS office,” that I ran at that time, “Was able to do.” It was a whole article about how I built this thing all by myself, with the surgeon general himself saying, “Yes, she built it.”
And then the governor comes out and says, “Oh, she wasn’t that important to it.” And then I rebuilt it again in a day. So, that kind of debunked that. But yeah, it’s a very strange thing to see the governor of your state openly threaten you, essentially, in front of the vice president. And at that point, I hadn’t said a word to anybody. I hadn’t said anything to anybody, and the man’s never met me.
And he spoke with such hatred and just cruelty towards a person he’s never met, that he knew nothing about. And who hadn’t even spoken out against him at that point. Strange. Very strange and disturbing. And yeah, I get threatening emails and phone calls all the time. If people don’t believe the data that I’m putting out there, that’s fine, but I’ve done my job in providing it.
Kim Brown: You mentioned for the governor, Ron DeSantis, and I don’t think it’s an opinion to say that the state of Florida is not handling the pandemic in the best way. But not to be too surprised by that. After all, he is an acolyte of President Donald Trump, who, for months, called COVID-19 a hoax, refused to wear masks and still continues to do things like discredit people that are working specifically on behalf of disease control and getting information out to the public about how this virus is behaving, how it’s accelerating.
I think Deborah Birx, Dr. Deborah Birx, recently said that we’ve entered a new phase in how the pandemic is impacting the United States.
In your opinion, first of all, Donald Trump said that we have the virus under control. I’m sure you saw that Axios HBO interview that he gave, where he was fumbling with his charts, which show America was doing better in certain categories.
Rebecca Jones: At last, our first. That was interesting.
Donald Trump: Can I look at some of these charts?
Jonathan Swan: I’d love to.
Donald Trump: We’re going to look.
Jonathan Swan: Let’s look.
Donald Trump: And if you look at deaths per this one.
Jonathan Swan: Start to go up again.
Donald Trump: Well, right here, United States is lowest in numerous categories. We’re lower than the world.
Jonathan Swan: Lower than the world? What does that mean?
Donald Trump: Lower than Europe.
Jonathan Swan: In what? In what?
Donald Trump: Take a look. Right here. Here’s case death.
Jonathan Swan: Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the US is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.
Donald Trump: You can’t do that.
Jonathan Swan: Why can’t I?
Donald Trump: You have to go by where … Look, here is the United States. You have to go by the cases.
Jonathan Swan: Why not as a proportion of population?
Donald Trump: When you have somebody-
Jonathan Swan: Look at South Korea, for example. 51 million population, 300 deaths. It’s crazy.
Donald Trump: You don’t know that.
Jonathan Swan: I do.
Donald Trump: You don’t know that.
Jonathan Swan: You think they’re faking their statistics, South Korea? An advanced country?
Donald Trump: I won’t get into that because I have a very good relationship with the country, but you don’t know that. And they have spikes. Right here, United States. You take the number of cases. Now look, we’re last, meaning we’re first.
Jonathan Swan: Last? I don’t know what it refers to. If hospital rates were going down and deaths were going down, I’d say, “Terrific.” You’d deserve to be praised for testing.
Donald Trump: But you know, they very rarely go-
Jonathan Swan: But they’re all going up. Another 60,000 Americans are in hospital.
Donald Trump: If you watch the news.
Jonathan Swan: 1000 dying a day.
Donald Trump: Or read the-
Rebecca Jones: He has no idea what he’s talking about, and I put this on Twitter. I have yet to see him answer a question that he’s been asked about coronavirus in this country correctly. Not once. Not once.
Kim Brown: Well, when the president says that we have the virus under control, in your opinion, do we have it truly under control, and how close or far are we away from having it under control?
Rebecca Jones: I personally don’t think that a person who has no fundamental knowledge of what has happened with coronavirus to this point should be speaking about whether or not we have it under control because we don’t. And he’s not a very intelligent person, and the things that he’s saying, people listen to him as if he’s the voice of God.
And they hear him say, “We have it under control. Everything’s fine.” They start to behave like it’s under control and everything’s fine, and that is dangerous. Somebody needs to put a muzzle on that man before he gets another 100,000 people killed.
The United States does not have this under control. Florida does not have this under control. This push to reopen schools, there’s no logic behind it. There’s no plan or state to state consistency with how it’s being done. I saw a picture of a Georgia high school yesterday, and the kids were in the hallway, all crammed up next to each other. Maybe two them had masks. And this is … Sorry.
I got into doing what I do because I care about people’s lives. Actually, I went into climate and hurricanes and public health because I care about people’s lives. I wanted to help stop people from dying if it was preventable in any way. Hurricanes, it’s very easy to know when it’s coming, where it’s going to be, how strong it’s going to be. Get people out of the way they live. You communicate that this is a risk. They live because they take action.
If we had a category five hurricane coming, and we said, “Don’t worry, it’s only category one,” two thirds of the people that would have left won’t, and they’ll die. And this isn’t any different. When you’re in a category five COVID storm, and it’s three hours away, and you’re telling people it’s safe, they’re going to stay where they’re at. They’re not going to get up and leave like they should. They’re not going to take action. They’re not going to board up their windows. They’re not going to get their supplies and stay inside.
It’s dangerous to mislead people on any risk to the public safety, and that’s what he’s doing. I don’t understand the logic behind it. I don’t think there is logic behind it. It’s baffling to all of us that have worked in public health, this push for schools. And I think when Dr. Deborah Birx was talking about how we’re entering a new phase, she’s understanding how the virus works in the community and understands that, by opening schools, we’re essentially going back to pre-COVID phases.
And when we started with COVID, there were a couple of cases, and it spread to the point that, what 150,000 people have now died? Now we’re starting with millions of cases, right back to where we were. So, our baseline is, instead of a couple, it’s several million. I don’t know why you would think that you would have a different result if it’s worse now than it was when we started.
Kim Brown: I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the state has failed us in this pandemic. So, Rebecca, knowing what you know, and having seen what you’ve seen, what would you tell people to do in order to save themselves at this point?
Rebecca Jones: We canceled school for the rest of the school year when there were a couple hundred cases in Florida. There are about 10,000 a day now, and so if we took that immediate action to protect people then, why are we not taking it now? It makes no sense. You have to demand more from the people who represent you, from the people that are making policy changes, who are driving these decisions. You have to speak up and you have to demand that they do this the way that the scientists and the doctors say.
If we don’t do that, then we’re just subject to whatever they decide and we aren’t participating in that democratic process. You have to speak up. You have to speak up. It’s so much to me that we’re starting schools with 10,000 cases a day in Florida, when we canceled them for the rest of the year when our total was several hundred. That’s the level of threat that we anticipated with several hundred. 10,000 a day? Schools are going to be a breeding ground.
And kids, to this point, have been the single most sheltered demographic. They haven’t had club sports. They haven’t had school. They’re not doing activities together. They have been shielded and staying home. That is why we haven’t seen the numbers that we do with people in my age demographic.
We’re changing that now, and we’re putting teachers’ lives at risks. It’s unfathomable that we’re doing this, and people must do the research, see what is safe for them, and speak out to the people that are making the decisions and let them know, at least at a minimum, how you feel about it. There’s nothing else we can do at this point.
Kim Brown: We’ve been speaking with Rebecca Jones. She is the data scientist who was an inadvertent whistle blower on how the state of Florida was distorting and even omitting some COVID positive numbers and even deaths in order to accommodate the state’s reopening plan. She has since created her own data dashboard at floridacovidaction.com.
Rebecca, on behalf of all of us here at The Real News, we want to thank you so much for the sacrifice and for the courageousness that it has taken to be speaking out against those in power. I mean, Ron DeSantis is no slouch, and he is an acolyte of Donald Trump. So, you are speaking out against the highest institutions of power in this country in order to try to save lives in a global pandemic. So, thank you very much for what you’ve done.
Rebecca Jones: Thank you guys for having me.
Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.