Last month, Rebekah Jones was let go from her position at the Florida Department of Health. While working there, she helped develop a data portal on Florida’s COVID-19 cases. However, after getting fired, she developed another coronavirus dashboard of her own.
Even though it seems quite similar to the health department’s dashboard, there are some significant differences. These differences highlight exactly how COVID-19 cases data has become controversial while people debate over the safety of reopening states.
For instance, according to Rebekah’s dashboard and calculations, only two out of the 67 countries in Florida fulfil the criteria for removing some restrictions and can be considered for reopening.
As a geographic information system manager, Rebekah had to create fundamentally the same dashboard she developed herself after getting fired for the health department’s website. However, that was before they knew what the dashboard would reveal.
According to Rebekah, when she showed the results of the dashboard for every county, she was told to erase the results. The report card revealed that almost no county met the state’s criteria and therefore, couldn’t be reopened.
Since they didn’t want to highlight this fact, the department told Rebekah to delete it. In fact, one of Rebekah’s superiors even went as far as asking Rebekah to manually change the numbers to make it seem like Florida’s COVID-19 positivity rating came to 10% instead of the actual 18%. This would, of course, allow the state to meet the criteria and proceed to reopen.
Upon refusing to make these changes among many others, Rebekah was fired from the health department on 18th May. According to her, all of it didn’t necessarily seem like a political conspiracy or something like that. It felt more like the department had other expectations, and they had made other plans accordingly.
However, when Rebekah brought out results that didn’t quite meet those expectations, they didn’t know what to do and how to reconcile all those plans.
Except for Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, all the counties of Florida had the first phase of reopening on 4th May. On June 5th, the state entered Phase 2, and even more restrictions were lifted.
However, Florida is now among the more than twenty states where the number of new COVID-19 cases are increasing every day. There were more than 73,000 cases and almost 3000 deaths in the state as of Sunday.
Rebekah, along with her lawyer, is in the process of finding out if there’s any protection for her under the whistleblower law. She had inquired about filing a whistleblower complaint at her job and was consequently fired the very next day.
Ron De Santis, a Florida Government Spokesperson, claims Rebekah repeatedly showed insubordination during her employment.
Even after being let go from the department, Rebekah finds it problematic the way they are calculating the coronavirus positivity rate. Their website shows a positivity percentage of 5.4%, from the 1.3 million people tested, which is actually a misleading number.
According to Rebekah, the department’s dashboard is designed to count anyone with a positive test just once, regardless of how many times they test positive again. However, if anyone shows a negative test, they will be counted as many times as they show a negative test.
Some essential workers, such as healthcare workers, have to be tested again and again. So, this is used to manipulate the dashboard numbers into showing low positivity rates. The health department claims Rebekah’s dashboard results are incorrect.
According to Alberto Moscoso, another spokesperson for the department, Rebekah’s dashboard uses different sources and sets of data while disregarding vital guidelines that are followed by epidemiologists for their own data.
The department uses data from official and authentic sources such as the Merlin and Electronic Surveillance System for the ESSENCE (Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics) tools.
Even though Rebekah and the department’s dashboard results are based on the same data, some of Rebekah’s information comes from unreliable sources, according to Moscoso. He further reports that the Department of Health always aims to disseminate only the most accurate and authentic information about the coronavirus cases in Florida.
Therefore, they are committed to using the most reliable and official data so that the information they provide is accurate and genuine. However, the department didn’t mention the basis for their calculations of the number of total people tested.
According to Cindy Prins, professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, Rebekah’s dashboard is more thorough than the department’s dashboard and presents a complete picture of the situation.
The state’s version is either missing some information or portraying it differently and is misusing the total people tested phrase. The number of total people tested, and the number of actual tests carried out are two different things.
Other than that, the Department of Health is also being questioned over how they are dealing with the COVID-19 cases data. Despite many other states doing so already, Florida declined to share any information regarding the number of coronavirus-related deaths in assisted living facilities and nursing homes for weeks, according to a report by the Miami Herald.
They further report that the department’s data is often lacking, altered without any notice, and even gets entirely taken down after being questioned.
According to Prins, the fact that the people are looking for accurate coronavirus information and numbers shows that they are interested in the data even with the whole pandemic situation going on.
Moreover, both dashboards provide one source where the public can get this data and be aware of where they stand.
Natalie Dean, professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida and member of the advisory board of the COVID Tracking Project, says that Rebekah’s dashboard is quite handy as it not only states the data but also includes other practical information on health care and testing so that they can make more informed decisions.
Moreover, Rebekah’s information and results are quite easily accessible as well. Currently, Rebekah’s dashboard is depending on donations through her GoFundMe fundraiser to continue operating and providing people with the vital and accurate information they need.