Anti-Science

Florida Intimidates Scientist to Hide COVID-19 Disaster

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Sometimes it’s not enough for me to look at what’s happening in the United States and being extremely depressed, so because I’m in such a good mood today, let’s ruin it by talking about what’s happening in Florida. Buckle up kiddos, this one gets bonkers.

Back in May, Florida governor Ron DeSantis (a Republican) decided he wanted to reopen the state economy. At the time, Florida was reporting about 1,000 new COVID-19 cases each day. DeSantis’s administration asked a health department scientist named Rebekah Jones to crunch the data and figure out which counties met the standard set by the federal government to being reopening. Jones informed them that none of the counties qualified. Unfortunately, the officials had already made the reopening plan, so they asked for the numbers to be tweaked. First it was some small things that Jones complied with, but when they asked her to lower the percentage of positive cases in certain counties to get them under the necessary number, she refused. Then she was ordered to take down the state’s COVID-19 dashboard that funneled data to the CDC, Johns Hopkins, and the general public. She did, which crashed a lot of websites, so they put the dashboard back and then fired her.

On May 18th Florida began phase 1 of reopening, with DeSantis insisting the move was science-based. He opened restaurants, retail stores, gyms, and museums for indoor service at 50% capacity. A month later new cases had risen from 1,000 per day to 2,500 per day, and a month after that it was 12 to 15,000 new cases per day.

Jones went on to create her own dashboard showing the true numbers of infected and dead Floridians. DeSantis claimed she was fired for repeated insubordination, but apparently firing her wasn’t quite enough for him.

On December 7th, DeSantis sent armed agents into Jones’s home, pointing guns at her and her small children. They took her phone and the computer she used to update the COVID dashboard, which also (according to Jones) contained evidence of the State’s corruption. DeSantis claims that Jones is suspected of using her old login to access a mailing list, allegedly to encourage more whistleblowers to come forward. Jones denies that allegation, but as Cory Doctorow pointed out it’s worth noting that she technically could have, because not only does the Florida Department of Health not disable the usernames and passwords of past employees, but they actually just all use the same username and password. I…I just…I cannot.

And that’s sort of the one ray of hope here. The Florida government is obviously extremely corrupt — Jones isn’t the only one who has shown evidence of this: as Zawy points out on Twitter, they were caught manipulating data as far back as March by switching from reporting “flu-like” hospitalizations to only reporting confirmed flu cases.

But at least they’re completely incompetent. I know that’s cold comfort for Jones’s children, who are probably scarred for life after seeing police officers aim loaded guns at their faces, but it’s good news for Jones, who is fighting back. She wrote, “If Desantis thought pointing a gun in my face was a good way to get me to shut up, he’s about to learn just how wrong he was. 

I’ll have a new computer tomorrow. 

And then I’m going to get back to work.” 

Their incompetence is also good news for the rest of us, that the DeSantis and his cronies are stupid enough that some of their machinations have been revealed and their unethical actions may lead to the discovery of more of what they’ve been doing.

In the meanwhile, Florida is still seeing about 10,000 new cases every day, and like everywhere in the US, the line is only going up. Here’s hoping DeSantis’s inept administration doesn’t completely screw up on distributing vaccines to his particularly elderly and at-risk population of Floridians.

You can help Jones in her legal fight against the Florida government by contributing to her GoFundMe.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. Ooo, do you have the one username and password? xD

    Yes I’ve been following this on twitter and it’s a gross injustice against a courageous scientist, one of integrity.

    Happy to donate (she’s halfway to her goal after only 9 days so fingers crossed)

  2. ” not only does the Florida Department of Health not disable the usernames and passwords of past employees, but they actually just all use the same username and password.”

    W.T.F?!?!?:!?!?!

    I don’t know much about computer security, but I know enough not to reuse passwords across different sites. This is like before computer security 101.

    And hell’s bells. I had heard the first part of the story a bit ago. But now armed agents pointing guns at kids? Sadly, nothing surprises me about that moron in Florida.

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