Rebekah Jones doesn’t expect her replacement at Florida’s DOH’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection (DDCHP) to provide “the same level of accessibility and transparency” that she had been committed to providing as geographic information system (GIS) manager and architect of the state’s lauded COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard.
Jones blames that very commitment to data accessibility and transparency as the motivating factor for her reassignment on May 5. In an email to a local CBS news affiliate in Tallahassee, she made the explosive allegation that superiors at the DDCHP had asked her to cook the books and “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.” When she refused, Jones was taken off the job and offered a settlement with the option to resign.
Just fifteen days before news of the Syracuse University graduate’s removal broke, Dr. Deborah Birx – a member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force – went out of her way on national television to praise the system Jones had built, suggesting Americans visit the “extraordinary” website to see how Florida had been able to display information about COVID-19 cases and tests at a granular level, “district by district, county by county”.
Birx, who has not yet commented on the Jones firing, said yesterday that she was “encouraged” by “clinical, laboratory data and surveillance data” showing a 50 percent decline in new COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. over the last month. Meanwhile, the data dashboard Birx had extolled on “Face the Nation” has crashed several times since Jones’ firing, limiting access to the underlying data sheets, and, according to Jones, still has not yet been “fully repaired.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferré, blamed Jones’ firing on “insubordination” in an email communication issued after a press conference in which DeSantis claimed not to know who Jones was. Ferré’s email accused the former GIS manager of making “unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors,” effectively turning the tables on Jones’ narrative and adding fuel to the fire of what looks to be the beginning of a political battle at the state level.
Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat holding office at the state level, addressed Governor DeSantis in an open letter decrying Jones’ firing as undermining “trust in our government,” and warning that such actions are “extraordinarily dangerous to public health.” The chair of Florida’s Democratic Party followed suit by calling for an independent investigation of Jones’ allegations of data manipulation and going as far as labelling these actions as potentially “criminal.” U.S. Representatives Lois Frankel and Kathy Castor also joined in condemning DeSantis and called attention to Florida’s “troubling pattern” of withholding data as it regards overall mortality rates in the state.
Despite the obvious political fodder inherent in the Jones controversy, exclusive insight provided this the author about a parallel event that recently took place across state lines in Georgia might reveal a more disturbing picture as coronavirus containment protocols open the door for draconian surveillance measures and increasing concentration of information in less and less hands.
On May 12, a week after Rebekah Jones had been reassigned, an emergency meeting was called at Grady Health Systems – a major hospital network serving greater Atlanta to announce to the staff of telemedicine workers that the data dashboard they use to track cases of COVID-19 was being taken over by a new team of cybersecurity experts.
According to confidential sources, the meeting was a highly emotional affair as Grady’s in-house IT department was let go after more than two decades managing the hospital network’s cybersecurity operations. Outgoing members of Grady’s IT department had barely been given the news a day earlier. The new team from a private cybersecurity firm called IT-CNP was introduced to the staff at the meeting.
Founded in November 2001, IT-CNP has a longstanding relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2017, it was awarded a Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) contract by HHS to “provide Next Generation IT Services (NGITS) application hosting, FedRAMP certified cloud, and associated managed services”. IT-CNP’s President, Sal Baldwin, asserted this contract would advance efforts around “artificial intelligence in service automation and operational efficiencies in direct support of rapidly evolving HHS mission objectives.”
Given the revelations contained in a multi-part investigative series co-authored by this author with Whitney Webb, this development at Grady Health Systems coupled with the recent events surrounding access to COVID-19 case data in Florida could point to a broader national effort to clamp down on reliable and transparent information about coronavirus cases across the country, in order to manipulate the message as we move towards reopening. It is also worth noting that none of the existing coverage of Jones’ ouster makes it clear who exactly was put in charge of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Limiting access to raw COVID-19 case data has direct repercussions on everything from how states implement reopening protocols to how many resources are allocated through federal government programs to fight the healthcare crisis that is unfolding. Jay Wolfson, a Senior Associate Dean at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, attributes two possible motives for restricting access to raw data. One revolves around the data being deemed “too flawed” and the other is that it might “reveal information that could be disturbing or contrary to stated narratives.”
Even more disturbing was an assessment made by Asal M. Johnson, assistant Professor of Public Health at Stetson University, who pointed out that “racial and ethnic data has been consistently excluded from Florida’s line listing of cases”, speculating that this was being done to “undermine evidence-based decision making” to further particular economic interests.
Ultimately, the ability to control the data available to both the public and the scientific community in the throes of a pandemic has far reaching implications for the future of democracy in the United States, and the fact that control over said data is being handed over to private concerns – in the case of IT-CNP – and unknown actors within the Florida DOH should be a serious concern to us all.
We would be remiss not to pay close attention to Rebekah Jones’ story and heeding the advice she gave in an email to subscribers of a COVID data listserv: “They are making a lot of changes,” warned Jones. “I would advise being diligent in your respective uses of this data.”
Feature photo | Health workers conduct COVID-19 tests at a drive through coronavirus testing site at a community center, April 27, 2020, in Sanford, Florida. John Raoux | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.