Florida Governor DeSantis Says Ousted Coronavirus Dashboard Official 'Not a Data Scientist,' Defends State's Response to Outbreak

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis defended his administration's actions Wednesday in the firing of a Department of Health employee, saying she is "not a data scientist."

"She is somebody that's got a degree in journalism, communication and geography," DeSantis told reporters after a visit to senior living facility in Orlando. "She is not involved in collating any data—she does not have the expertise to do that. She is not an epidemiologist. She is not the chief architect of our web portal."

Rebekah Jones, the geographic information system manager for the Florida Health Department's Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, stated in an email to her colleagues that she was fired because of her commitment to transparency.

"As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it," Jones wrote in the email. Her job involved working on the state's COVID-19 dashboard.

DeSantis said that Jones' firing was because she was insubordinate and acting on her own with data without consulting the "chain of command."

"What she was doing was she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn't believe was valid data. So she didn't listen to the people who were her superiors—she had many people above her in the chain of command—and so then she was dismissed because of that," DeSantis said.

The governor also revealed that his state has criminal charges open on Jones, including accusations of cyberstalking and online sexual harassment.

"I have asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on, because this was many months ago. I have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment," DeSantis said.

Florida has 47,471 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 2,096 deaths, according to the state's health department website. DeSantis said the data his state has put forth is transparent, contrary to Jones' remarks, and has even been commended by Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House's coronavirus task force.

"Our data is available, our data is transparent. In fact, Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data. So any insinuation otherwise is just typical, partisan narrative trying to be spun," the governor said.

DeSantis went on to defend his response to the pandemic against what he felt has been unfair coverage on by journalists.

"You have got a lot of people in your profession who wax poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York. 'Wait two weeks. Florida is going to be next, just like Italy. Wait two weeks.' Well, hell, we're eight weeks away from that, and it hasn't happened," DeSantis said. The governor implemented a stay-at-home order begin April 1 and began a phased reopening May 4.

"Not only do we have a lower death rate—well, we have way lower deaths generally—we have a lower death rate than the Acela corridor, [Washington, D.C.], everyone up there," he said. "We have a lower death rate than the Midwest—Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio. But even in our region—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia—Florida has the lower death rate, and I was the number one landing spot [for] tens of thousands of people leaving the number one hot zone in the world."

The governor added: "So we have succeeded and I think people just don't want to recognize that because it challenges their narrative, it challenges their assumption."

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Holds Coronavirus Press Briefing
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Hard Rock Stadium coronavirus testing site on May 6 in Miami Gardens. Joe Raedle/Getty