Read the full article at the Miami Herald here.
Just hours after the police entered her home, guns drawn and warrant to seize her electronics in hand, Rebekah Jones, Florida’s ousted data guru for COVID-19, sent a warning to one of her most secret confidants — Jared Moskowitz, top aide to Gov. Ron DeSantis for the state’s COVID-19 response.
“DeSantis sent police to my house. They took all my tech and hardware,” Jones wrote to DeSantis’ director of emergency management on the encrypted app Signal on Dec. 7. It was six months after her high-profile dismissal from the Florida Department of Health after airing concerns about “gross mismanagement” and “progressively misleading” data being presented to the public.
One of DeSantis’ most trusted aides and most despised critics had become pen pals in the months after she was fired.
“I wanted to give you a heads up that he might find out we’ve been talking,” she wrote to Moskowitz. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had taken her phone and computer to search for evidence that she had illegally accessed a state messaging app used to coordinate emergency response efforts — a third-degree felony for which she was later charged. Jones denies wrongdoing and the case has yet to go to trial.
The raid, at least in Jones’ mind, represented a dramatic escalation in her public dispute with the Florida governor. The months-long feud she said she never wanted or expected transformed her from an anonymous public servant in the information technology department into either a beacon of science and truth or an attention-seeking grifter, depending on whom you ask.
“I was irrelevant. I’m only relevant now because DeSantis won’t leave me alone,” Jones said in a series of interviews with the Herald. “I think I have somehow come to symbolize that ‘a nobody’ can do this much damage to somebody as powerful as him.”
Shortly after she was shown the door, Jones filed a confidential whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, essentially a grievance that says she was punished for speaking out. Documents related to the sealed complaint — including the state’s response — have been obtained by the Herald.
While maintaining that Jones was fired for “insubordination” and not out of retaliation for what the complaint describes as Jones’ refusal to be part of a “misleading and politically driven narrative that ignored the data and science,” documents filed by the health department confirm two of the core aspects laid out in Jones’ complaint.
Sworn affidavits from DOH leaders acknowledge Jones’ often-denied claim that she was told to remove data from public access after questions from the Miami Herald.
And a position statement filed by DOH challenges the centerpiece of DeSantis’ pandemic victory narrative: that his strategy to reopen the state was created in a “very measured, thoughtful and data-driven way.” In other words, it would be safe.
The governor’s step-by-step reopening plan was published with a cover letter claiming the plan put “public health-driven data at the forefront” and boasting “benchmarks” the document claimed were identified by the Florida Department of Health based on criteria from the White House.
But those claims were contradicted in a DOH position statement filed Aug. 17, stating that while Jones and a team of DOH epidemiologists had been tapped “to develop new data for a reopening plan” employing key metrics from the White House, their findings were never incorporated into the recommendations to DeSantis. Deputy Secretary of Health Shamarial Roberson denied the department made any recommendations on the reopening plan at all.
“An external task force was created by the Executive Office of the Governor to make recommendations to the Governor on reopening, as that was not a function of FDOH,” wrote Roberson in her sworn statement to FCHR.
Shamarial Roberson is the Department of Health’s deputy secretary for health. AP
The subsequent reopening was followed by a five-fold surge in COVID-19 cases in Florida last July and some of the single-highest daily case totals across the nation.
The governor’s spokesperson Taryn Fenske said the documents obtained by the Herald contained “false claims.”
“Throughout the unprecedented health crisis every action taken by Governor DeSantis was data-driven and deliberate,” Fenske said. But when the Herald requested the data, data analysis, or data model related to reopening under Florida’s open records law, the governor’s office responded that there were no responsive records.
Last Friday, in what Jones and her allies consider a measure of vindication, the health department’s Office of the Inspector General stated in a letter to Jones’ attorneys that their client met the criteria for whistleblower protections as prescribed by law. The office also found “reasonable cause” to open an investigation into decisions and actions by DOH leadership that could “represent an immediate injury to public health,” according to the May 28 letter.
The letter followed months of raging debate about her credibility, built on her history of arrests (though no convictions), underscored by essays in conservative media branding her a liar. Detractors say her often unspecific claims of “data manipulation,” aired on national news, undermined confidence in the state during a crucial time for public health.
Jones’ veracity had been frayed by a certain recklessness on Twitter, where she frequently wages public fights with academics, journalists and public officials. Her tendency to tweet first and fact check later led Jones to occasionally delete posts like about cases disappearing after she said she decided she didn’t have enough context.
Jones blames a lot of the confusion on the brevity of the platform, where she has been accused of confusing antibody and antigen tests and inaccurately describing how New York counted COVID-19 deaths in conversations Jones said were misconstrued.
Any mistake, large or small, real or perceived, is red meat for those calling her a fraud.
Jones said she was surprised when Moskowitz first reached out to her on Twitter in July 2020 to discuss hurricane preparedness plans — Jones’ specialty. Most of her former colleagues had long since stopped talking to her, either out of fear of being fired for associating with a political outcast or anger that she had cast doubt on all of their hard work.
“The brass balls you must have to contact me directly,” Jones replied to Moskowitz, who at the time occupied a top-level desk within the executive office of the governor. (He subsequently left the administration.)
Screenshots from almost a year of sporadic conversation on Twitter and Signal show an unlikely alliance born from a shared passion for public service and emergency response: his driven by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, his home town, and hers from growing up in Louisiana and Mississippi, experiencing Hurricane Katrina as a teen.
Signal messages between Rebekah Jones and Jared Moskowitz, former director of emergency management. Respectively the screenshots are dated Dec. 8, Dec. 23 and Dec. 31, 2020.
“I know you know your stuff and are committed,” Moskowitz said to Jones on Twitter on Nov. 8, 2020. He told the Herald a different story: that he reached out to his boss’ nemesis to try to combat disinformation and keep Jones from publishing any rumors about emergency management.
Whether or not she was right for the job, Moskowitz told the Herald he recognized Jones was the most trusted source of COVID-19 information for many terrified Floridians, who clung to her every word and tweeted suspicion as gospel.
“It became obvious early on that ‘behind the scenes work’ would be necessary to dispel rumors, innuendos and neutralize conspiracy theories,” Moskowitz told the Herald. Gov. DeSantis says serving search warrant wasn't a 'raid' In comments on Dec. 11 in Tampa, Gov. Ron DeSantis reacted angrily to questions about FDLE's execution of a search warrant at the Tallahassee home of former state Dept. of Health data analyst Rebekah Jones.
Jones’ warning message to Moskowitz after the raid sat unread for more than 24 hours before the director responded. “Hey,” Moskowitz wrote before switching the app’s settings to make the messages disappear within five minutes of being read.
“Are you able to go into your Twitter and delete our convo?” Moskowitz asked. “I can delete on my end.”
Jones agreed, but neither kept their word. Both provided the Herald with excerpts of their conversations.
In the aftermath of the raid, Moskowitz had an answer to Jones’ most burning question: Why was DeSantis coming after her then, after so much time?
Though he didn’t know specifics, Moskowitz knew his boss.
“He is relentless,” he told her.
‘EVERYBODY’S FIRST PLAGUE’
The daily reality of the Florida Department of Health is far tamer than what conspiracy theorists on Twitter imagine. There are no bodies kept in warehouses to skew death statistics, Jones said. A review of thousands of emails Jones downloaded from her DOH inbox tells the story of a lurching but sincere effort to keep Floridians safe that was defined more by chaos than conspiracy.
Florida’s COVID data are collected and analyzed by a bare-bones group of epidemiologists at the department of health — a team, referred to in short as “Epi” — located in a nondescript office in Tallahassee usually worlds away from politics and drama.
The pandemic raised the group’s profile. Emails show that Epi’s work, generally performed slowly and meticulously away from the limelight, was suddenly thrust in the center of a maelstrom of competing interests — the CDC looking for clean data to study, emergency management to instruct relief efforts, the public looking to use data to make informed decisions, and politicians whose motives were never fully described.
DOH epidemiologists scrambled to update an archaic surveillance system, suddenly flooded with data from every direction, sometimes arriving by fax, while also digesting near daily updates from the CDC. Emails from the time are a whirlwind of discussion: Is this datapoint reflecting “Gender” or “Sex”? What does “Event Date” mean? Are we including non-resident deaths?
“It was a crazy time but most people were really just trying to do their best,” Jones said in her first interview with the Herald in May 2020. “To be fair, this is pretty much everybody’s first plague so we’re all new at it.”
Jones landed in the middle of the scrum when she was tasked with creating a public dashboard of COVID-19 cases in mid-March. A geographer with a master’s from Louisiana State University, she worked with the Epi team to present their COVID data in a way that an audience of non-scientists might understand what it meant.
Every time Jones had questions, like why daily case numbers would sometimes be negative, DOH epidemiologists had answers.
“It could be a number of things. This could be a combination of duplicate cases being deleted, assigned county change, and new cases added,” epidemiologist Thomas Troelstrup wrote in a March 24 email to Jones. “As we continue to investigate and clean data, situations like this may happen.”