COVID-19 Data Scientist and Whistleblower Rebekah Jones Is a Profile in Courage

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

“There was never a question in my mind, will I do this 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 particularly unique. Whistleblowers find themselves at the dicey intersection of truth and power. Millions of lives are at stake, and they can face fiery blowback for their allegiance to the truth.

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

Early in 2020, Rebekah Jones—a Florida-based scientist who studies disaster research and communications—made quick moves to map the new virus. She remembers receiving a warning email from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January. Jones pushed for tracking COVID data for two months before finally getting a green light from Florida officials at the Department of Health (DOH) in March 2020 to build a dashboard for Florida COVID cases.

Previously a geographic information systems manager for the DOH, Jones used maps and analysis to track environmental factors, such as water quality. She understood early on that mapping the virus would be critical to fellow scientists, for modeling and prediction, and most importantly, for the health and safety of the public. Yet, in May 2020, when it came time to present data on reopening, Jones was ultimately fired for refusing to manipulate the numbers.

Community outrage and support for her to be reinstated 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 keeping with the urgency of a worsening pandemic, built a new and improved dashboard independent of the state’s official site. Florida COVID Action remains accessible to the public and has received praise for its accuracy.

In December, amidst a raging pandemic, the administration under Trump-allied Florida Governor Ron DeSantis authorized police to raid the home of Rebekah Jones. Police arrived at her doorstep with a questionable search warrant to harass her family and confiscate her laptop and phone. National media attention from The New York Times, CNN, NPR, USA Today and MSNBC put the spotlight on Jones’s plight, putting a pause on the Florida COVID cover-up.

Jones’s story of speaking truth to power resonated with thousands of people all over the country: Forbes named her Technology Person of the Year for her innovative dashboard built to track the pandemic; Fortune included her in their “40 Under 40” lineup of emerging leaders; and she was named as one of the “50 Experts To Trust in a Pandemic” by The Medium Coronavirus Blog.

Rebekah Jones Spent Her Life Running Toward Natural Disasters

When Rebekah Jones was growing up, she was witness to nature’s miraculous beauty and to its devastating power. When her family was living in Pennsylvania, one of the deadliest tornadoes on record blazed through her childhood neighborhood.

Later when they moved south to Mississippi, so did the powerful forces of nature: In 2005, she lived through the unforgettable wrath and wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. She remembers having to climb a tree after the storm hit to find a way into a relative’s house who had died.

Q&A: COVID-19 Data Scientist and Whistleblower Rebekah Jones
Rebekah Jones. (@GeoRebekah / Twitter)

“We moved around the country a lot. All throughout that traveling as a kid, I was always just fascinated with nature, everything around me. We went out to the Barrier Islands and I thought it was amazing. I refused to get on the boat to go back, that’s how much I loved it. Then Hurricane George hit that Fall. We went back in the Spring and it was a completely different island.”

Jones arrived to Syracuse University with a love for the natural world and a passion for writing. She planned to study journalism, but a course on climate change was a game changer: “It was one of those Earth-shifting-on-its-axis moments,” Jones told Ms.

She threw herself into the study of climate change, natural hazards, hurricanes, disaster response and preparedness and geography.

“I decided that I wasn’t content with the passive role in writing about problems. I wanted to be more active and finding solutions for them, especially because I went through Katrina.”


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

“I had no idea then that I would ever be involved, much less critical to a pandemic response. Everyone in the class got assigned a role of some kind of relative authority. Like somebody was the mayor. I was the school superintendent or the high school principal.”

She was surprised when her classmates were rushing to return to normal. She remembered her own life experiences of natural disasters and that the phenomena often required real caution.

The Backlash

Words like “insubordinate,” “crazy” and “bitch” have now all been thrown at Rebekah Jones in an effort to degrade and derail her. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has targeted Jones, labeling her as a “darling of the fever swamp.” (The 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 with the creation of the Florida dashboard and that she was a low level disgruntled employee. In describing her experiences with Florida officials, Jones has some words of her own: disturbing, unsettling, weird and dangerous. When asked if she thought there would be consequences for DeSantis’s abuses of power, she said, “Absolutely.” She believes there will be a congressional investigation into what happened in Florida. Jones said there was no great epiphany or weighing of the consequences when she was asked to fudge the numbers in Florida.

“There was never a question in my mind, Will I do this to keep my job? Never. I just said no. … I like to think there was this dramatic moment where I walked into a room and I thought about it. And I weighed these consequences and there was some power moment, but there wasn’t. I just said no, almost instantly.”

Jones demonstrates a strong ethical reflex for an emerging leader who has traveled in some very male-dominated fields like science, technology and academia.

“I remember walking down the LSU Halls for the first time, and looking at the wall of past presidents, past chairs of our department and there was not one single one of them that was a woman.”

She knew then she wanted things to be different for her daughter. When asked from who or where she draws inspiration when the going gets tough, Jones looks to history and to a time long before ours but perhaps equally tumultuous.

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

Right action will only follow true acceptance of the new world we are living in, said Jones, who emphasized there is no after when it comes to these challenges.

“There is no getting back to the way things were. It’s only what is after. There was no after or back to the way things were with Katrina for anybody who was there. It will never be what it was before that storm hit. Never. And the pandemic isn’t any different.”

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

“I don’t think the full measure of what this has cost us in lives, in health and in years of life and living and long term sickness and depression. I don’t think every possible consequence will be ever really be fully registered.”

Along with Florida COVID Action, Jones founded the The COVID Monitor which reports COVID data for school districts nationwide.

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

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About

Wendy Webb has a Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School and a Master of Fine Arts in Art Criticism and Writing from The School of Visual Arts in New York. She writes about culture, health, wellness, the environment and is based in Miami, Florida. Read + view more: medium.com/@wendylwebb wendylwebb.com