Saturday, January 16, 2021

Rebekah Jones: data scientist confronts Florida governor

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Rebekah Jones mainly uses Twitter to share updates on the Covid-19 pandemic in Florida, from the number of new cases to the rate of positivity testing in the southern state of the United States.

But on Monday, Ms. Jones, a 31-year-old climatologist who was fired this year from her job at the Florida Department of Health, released a 30-second memo instead. video showing police officers, guns, entering the house she shares with her husband and two young children.

Mrs. Jones, who claims she was fired after refusing to manipulate official Covid-19 figures, blamed Ron DeSantis, Republican Governor of Florida and ally of President Donald Trump for the incident, in which police seized his phone and laptops. “This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly”, she tweeted. “This is what happens to people who speak the truth to power.”

A spokesperson for Mr. DeSantis said the governor “did not participate in the investigation” and it was “absurd” to claim that the search was carried out in retaliation. State Police said they were investigating an alleged hack into the Department of Health’s emergency alert system – Ms Jones says she had nothing to do with the hack. Rick Swearingen, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said the police acted “in accordance with normal protocols”.

Since Mrs Jones asserted in May, as some of Florida’s top officials fiddled with Covid-19 data to downplay the scale of the pandemic, she was a thorn alongside Mr DeSantis. Mr DeSantis lashed out at Ms Jones on Friday, claiming she had “problems” and alleged a “Health Department conspiracy theory that was unfounded”.

Now she has gained ground beyond the state. Supporters see her as a heroic whistleblower, one of a group of scientific experts at odds with right-wing politicians that includes Anthony Fauci, the veteran immunologist who has publicly locked horns with Mr. Trump and this week accepted a job in the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Born in 1989, Ms Jones spent most of her childhood in mississippi, where major storms, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, piqued his interest in natural disasters. “I wanted to be part of the solution, to be part of the team that is preventing these things from happening,” she recalls this week. She graduated from Syracuse with a double degree in geography and journalism, before earning a master’s degree in geography and mass communication from Louisiana State University. She then moved to Florida, where she began, but did not complete, a doctorate in geography at Florida State University. In 2018, she accepted a job with the state health department as a data scientist. She mainly worked on environmental issues, such as toxic algal blooms, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

In March, she headed the department’s coronavirus dashboard, a platform widely hailed as an accessible but comprehensive tool for tracking the spread of the virus. In six weeks, Ms. Jones said, more than 100 million people had viewed the page.

“If you visit the Florida public health website on Covid, they were able to show their communities’ cases and tests district by district, county by county,” Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus working group, said in april. “This is the kind of knowledge and power that we need to put in the hands of Americans so that they can see where the virus is, where the cases are, and make decisions.”

But less than a month later, Ms Jones was fired. She filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging she was released after refusing to massage the state’s Covid-19 data at a time when Mr DeSantis was pushing to end lockdowns and reopen businesses. Officials said she was fired, with good reason, for insubordination. Mr DeSantis told reporters her firing was a “non-issue” and cited allegations against her regarding a former boyfriend. County court records show Ms Jones facing exceptional misdemeanor accusation of stalking in a case dating from July 2019.

After being fired, Ms Jones set up a GoFundMe page which raised over $ 250,000. She used the funds to build the Covid Monitor, an independent website track the virus in the state.

Ms Jones’ Twitter video sparked outrage. “Unless we get more information to show otherwise, it looks like an act of retaliation or an attempt to silence Ms Jones for her criticism of the state’s response to Covid-19,” said a member of the Democratic Congress. Charlie crist. “The confidence of the people in the government of their state is essential, and these actions, without a fuller understanding, are very damaging.”

Ron Filipkowski, a Republican lawyer who was appointed by Mr. DeSantis to a state judicial college, resigned in protest. He says he was “stunned” by the video, adding that he became “more angry” when he read the mandate which he said appeared to have “political purposes”. “They’re not interested, I think, in suing her for anything,” Filipkowski said. “They want to intimidate, fire or silence officials.”

Ms Jones says that while she was not surprised by Monday’s research – “I think DeSantis wanted to sue me for a while” – she wants to use her new platform to “let people know what’s going on. going with the virus ”.

“I’m going to take this horrible thing that happened to me to do my best to keep doing what I’ve always done,” she says, adding that she is looking to move her family to another state in the United States. weeks to come.

lauren.fedor@ft.com



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