COVID-19 data scientist and whistleblower Rebekah Jones is a brave profile

In May 2020, when presenting data on the reopening, Rebekah Jones – a Florida-based scientist who studies disaster and communications research – was ultimately fired for refusing to manipulate the numbers.

“There was never a question in my mind, am I going to do it to keep my job?” Never. I just said no. (Courtesy of Rebekah Jones)

Courage cannot be taken for granted in these strange times, but in these uncharted waters of COVID and constant crises, the courage of whistleblowers is especially unique. Whistleblowers stand at the risky intersection of truth and power. Millions of lives are at stake, and they may face a fiery flashback for their allegiance to the truth.

American geographer and data scientist Rebekah Jones is one such story: a profile of courage in a rapidly changing America.

In early 2020, Rebekah Jones, a Florida-based scientist who studies disaster and communications research, took swift action to map the new virus. She recalls receiving a warning email from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January. Jones lobbied to track COVID data for two months before finally getting the nod from Florida officials at the Department of Health (DOH) in March 2020 to create a dashboard for COVID cases in Florida.

Previously responsible for geographic information systems for the DOH, Jones used maps and analytics to track environmental factors, such as water quality. She understood early on that mapping the virus would be essential for her fellow scientists, for modeling and prediction, and most importantly, for public health and safety. Yet in May 2020, when presenting data on the reopening, Jones was ultimately fired for refusing to manipulate the numbers.

Community outrage and support for his reintegration followed, but to no avail. The American Association of Geographers even wrote a letter to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about the importance of geographic data scientists in public health and epidemiology. Jones, in accordance with the urgency of a worsening pandemic, has built a new and improved dashboard independent of the state’s official website. Florida COVID Action remains publicly available and has received praise for its accuracy.

In December, amid a raging pandemic, the administration of Florida Governor allied with Trump, Ron DeSantis, authorized police to search Rebekah Jones’ home. Police arrived at his door with a questionable search warrant to harass his family and confiscate his laptop and phone. National media attention from the New York Times, CNN, NPR, USA Today and MSNBC has highlighted Jones’ plight, pausing the COVID cover-up in Florida.

Jones’ story of speaking the truth to power resonated with thousands across the country: Forbes named her Technology Person of the Year for her innovative dashboard designed to track the pandemic; Fortune has included her in its “40 Under 40” line of emerging leaders; and was named one of The Medium Coronavirus Blog’s “50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic”.

Rebekah Jones has spent her life chasing natural disasters

When Rebekah Jones was growing up, she witnessed nature’s miraculous beauty and devastating power. When her family lived in Pennsylvania, one of the deadliest tornadoes on record struck her childhood neighborhood.

As they later moved south to the Mississippi, so did the mighty forces of nature: in 2005, she experienced the unforgettable wrath and sinking of Hurricane Katrina. She remembers having to climb a tree after the storm to find a way to enter the house of a deceased relative.

“We have moved around the country a lot. Throughout this journey as a child, I have always been fascinated by nature, everything around me. We went to the Barrier Islands and found it amazing. I refused to get on the boat to get back, that’s how much I loved it. Then Hurricane George hit this fall. We went back in the spring and it was a whole different island.

Jones came to Syracuse University with a love for the natural world and a passion for writing. She was planning on studying journalism, but a course in climate change was a game-changer: “It was one of those times when the Earth changed on its axis,” Jones said. Mrs.

She embarked on the study of climate change, natural hazards, hurricanes, disaster response, preparedness and geography.

“I decided that I wasn’t content with just the passive role of writing about issues. I wanted to be more active and find solutions for them, especially because I went through Katrina.


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A prophetic sign of what was to come and a remarkable training that would help her navigate future terrain, she experienced the simulation of a pandemic in a college course. Jones participated in a semester-long simulation of a pandemic as part of his climate studies.

“I had no idea at the time that I would one day be involved, let alone critical of a pandemic response. Everyone in the class was given a role of relative authority. Like someone is the mayor. I was the principal of the school or the principal of the high school.

She was surprised when her classmates rushed to get back to normal. She recalled her own life experiences with natural disasters and how often phenomena required real caution.

The backlash

Words like “insubordinate”, “crazy” and “bitch” have now all been thrown at Rebekah Jones in an attempt to degrade and derail her. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has targeted Jones, calling her “the darling of the fever swamp.” (Fever swamp is a term popularized in right-wing conservative media circles to refer to mainstream news networks.)

DeSantis falsely claimed that Jones was not involved in the creation of the Florida scorecard and that she was a disgruntled low-level employee. Describing his experiences with Florida officials, Jones has his own words: disturbing, disturbing, bizarre and dangerous. When asked if she thought there would be any consequences for DeSantis’ abuse of power, she replied: “Absolutely”. She believes there will be a Congressional inquiry into what happened in Florida. Jones said there was no big reveal or weighing of the consequences when asked to fake the numbers in Florida.

“There was never a question in my mind: am I going to do this to keep my job? Never. I just said no. … I like to think that there was that dramatic moment when I walked into a room and thought about it. And I weighed those consequences and there was a moment of power, but there wasn’t. I just said no, almost instantly.

Jones shows a strong ethical reflex for an emerging leader who has traveled in highly male-dominated fields such as science, technology and academia.

“I remember walking through LSU rooms for the first time and looking at the wall of past presidents, past presidents of our department and there wasn’t a single one of them that was female.”

She knew then that she wanted things to be different for her daughter. When asked where or where she draws her inspiration from when the going gets tough, Jones turns to history and to an era long before ours but perhaps just as tumultuous.

She admires Francis “Fannie” Perkins, the initiator of the New Deal, who served as US Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, the first woman to hold a Cabinet post, and a longtime friend of FDR. “She was a truth teller and a fighter for justice,” Jones said. Perkins became a leader in labor reform after witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York City. Jones notes that it may well be a travesty that Perkins’ legacy is not more aptly celebrated in American history.

Righteous action will only follow genuine acceptance of the new world we live in, said Jones, who stressed that there is no after when it comes to those challenges.

“It’s impossible to go back to the way things used to be. It is only what is after. There was no after or return to the way things were with Katrina for anyone who was there. It will never be what it was before the storm struck. Never. And the pandemic is no different. “

Jones said the virus can be controlled with mitigation and strategy measures, but greed is also a disease plaguing this country.

“I don’t think the full extent of what it has cost us in lives, health and years of life and life and long term illness and depression. I don’t think all the possible consequences will ever really be fully recorded.

With Florida COVID Action, Jones founded the COVID Monitor which reports COVID data for school districts across the country.

The state of Florida issued an arrest warrant for Rebekah Jones on January 16, 2021 for unauthorized access to a computer, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Jones has been told not to speak to the media or additional charges will be laid against her. This is a worrying update revealing the corrupt acts of a desperate state government, but there is still hope that justice and truth will prevail for Rebekah Jones’ health, safety and the good of all Americans.

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Sean N. Ayres