June 23, 2021

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Florida’s Government May Have Ignored and Withheld Data About Covid-19 Cases

Florida’s Government May Have Ignored and Withheld Data About Covid-19 Cases

Slashdot reader DevNull127 writes: Documents filed by Florida’s health department now “confirm two of the core aspects” of a whistleblower complaint filed by fired data manager Rebekah Jones, the Miami Herald reported Friday. “Sworn affidavits from Department of Health leaders acknowledge Jones’ often-denied claim that she was told to remove data from public access after questions from the Miami Herald.”

And they also report a position statement from the department (filed August 17th) acknowledging something even morning damning. While a team of epidemiologists at the Department of Health had developed data for the state’s plan to re-open — their findings were never actually incorporated into that plan.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for governor Ron DeSantis still insisted to the Herald that “every action taken by Governor DeSantis was data-driven and deliberate.”

From the article:
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… Secrecy was a policy. Staffers were told not to put anything about the pandemic response into writing, according to four Department of Health employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity… Emails and texts reviewed by the Herald show the governor’s office worked in coordination with Department of Health “executive leadership” to micromanage everything about the department’s public response to the pandemic, from information requests from the press to specific wording and color choice on the Department of Health website and data dashboard. They slow-walked responses to questions on important data points and public records, initially withholding information and data on deaths and infections at nursing homes, state prisons and schools, forcing media organizations to file or threaten lawsuits. Important information that had previously been made public was redacted from medical examiner accounts of COVID-19 fatalities.

At one point the state mischaracterized the extent of Florida’s testing backlog by over 50 percent — skewing the information about how many people were getting sick each day — by excluding data from private labs, a fact that was only disclosed in response to questions from the press. Emails show that amid questions about early community spread, data on Florida’s earliest potential cases — which dated back to late December 2019 — were hidden from the public by changing “date range of data that was available on the dashboard.”

Department of Health staffers interviewed by the Herald described a “hyper-politicized” communications department that often seemed to be trying to match the narrative coming from Washington.

The Herald’s article also “delved into the details of the department’s operation,” writes DevNull127 :

For example, the whistleblower complaint of Rebekah Jones quotes the state’s deputy health secretary as telling her pointedly that “I once had a data person who said to me, ‘you tell me what you want the numbers to be, and I’ll make it happen.'”

Or, as Jones later described that interaction to her mother, “They want me to put misleading data up to support that dumb f***’s plan to reopen. And more people are gonna die because [of] this and that’s not what I agreed to.”

Last Friday the health department’s Office of the Inspector General announced they’d found “reasonable cause” to open an investigation into decisions and actions by Department of Health leadership that could “represent an immediate injury to public health.”

Meanwhile, Florida officials confirmed Friday night that their health department “will no longer update its Covid-19 dashboard and will suspend daily case and vaccine reports,” according to the New York Times. “Officials will instead post weekly updates, becoming the first U.S. state to move to such an infrequent publishing schedule.”

Jones had been using that data to continue running her own online dashboard, and posted Friday in lieu of data that the dashboard’s operation would now be interrupted “as I work to reformat the website to adjust for these changes….” But she promised to keep trying to help the people of Florida “in whatever capacity I can with the limitations the Department of Health is now putting on public access to this vital health information.”

Read more of this story at Slashdot.