Florida Inspector General’s report finds ‘unsubstantiated’ claims by fired data scientists about Covid-19 data manipulation

Former state data scientist Rebekah Jones claimed she was pressured by Health Department officials to falsify Covid-19 data to hide the extent of the Florida outbreak in the early months of the pandemic. In a report completed in March, the inspector general’s office said there was insufficient evidence to prove their claims and exonerated staffers accused of staging a cover-up.

In a complaint filed in July 2020, Jones, who was tasked with administering Florida’s Covid-19 data dashboard, claimed that she was fired after she refused to follow instructions to manipulate data on the dashboard in order to to help lift coronavirus restrictions to reopen the state when he was actually unsafe to do so.

Investigators found the state’s Covid-19 data was not falsified and said in the report that the manipulation Jones alleged “did not take place”.

Witnesses within the department told investigators they were “skeptical” of Jones’ original claims that she had been asked to tamper with data because she was not an epidemiologist and did not have access to the dashboard’s underlying Covid-19 data stores. According to the report, Jones only had access to a publicly available dashboard that visualized the data, and that information matched data the department shared with the public in a daily report.

“If the complainant or other DOH employees had falsified COVID-19 data on the dashboard, the dashboard would not have matched the data in the corresponding final daily report,” the report said, noting that “there was such a discrepancy.” would be discovered by staff from the State Bureau of Epidemiology and by other groups such as local governments and the media.

Several current and former Department of Health officials interviewed by investigators “denied ever having been asked by anyone to falsify or otherwise alter COVID-19 data, or having witnessed anyone else being asked to 19 data to falsify or otherwise alter,” the report said.

Jones also claimed in her complaint that Health Department officials instructed her to remove a “data hub” with underlying surveillance data from the dashboard before telling her to reactivate it within 24 hours, the report said.

The report found that Jones’ claim was correct and cited interviews with the officials, who said the data had been temporarily removed for review over concerns that they were sharing publicly available personal information of patients related to reported Covid-19 cases. cases might contain. However, the report concluded that the officials’ actions did not violate any policy as the “data hub” did not need to be opened to the public.

The 27-page report was first reported by NBC News on Thursday.

In response, Jones described the report’s conclusion that she had been asked to remove some data as “justification”.

“I’m relieved to be confirmed,” she said in part in a statement. “It feels like a massive burden is being lifted to finally be rehabilitated after all the state’s efforts to defame and slander me and failed attempts to discredit me with unsubstantiated claims that have finally been proven false have proven.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond Friday to CNN’s request for comment on the inspector general’s report and Jones’ response.

Jones publicly shared the story of her firing before leaving the department in May 2020, and became a prominent critic of DeSantis, blaming the Republican for minimizing the scale of the outbreak in Florida during the pandemic.

When she was discharged, the health department said Jones was removed because she “showed a repeated course of insubordination” and “made unilateral decisions to change the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiology team or her supervisors.” have.
In December 2020, police executed a search warrant at Jones’ Tallahassee home amid a state investigation into whether she had accessed a state messaging system without permission to solicit employees to find out about the state’s Covid-19 deaths to express.

In May 2021, she was granted whistleblower status by the Inspector General, although the final report stated that the decision was “based solely on the nature of the complainant’s allegations as set out in her original complaint”.

Jones turned herself into jail in January 2021 after an arrest warrant was issued for her. She posted bail and left prison after telling reporters who tested her that she was positive for Covid-19. She was charged with a felony offense involving users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said. According to court records, she pleaded not guilty and the case is pending.

Jones has been politically active since leaving the health department and is now running in a Democratic primary to challenge US Rep. Matt Gaetz for his Panhandle district.

CNN’s Curt Devine, Casey Tolan, Tina Burnside and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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