Armed Florida police raid home of Covid-19 data whistleblower
Tallahassee, Florida – The Tallahassee home of the former Department of Health (DOH) data scientist who has been running an alternative website to the state's Covid-19 dashboard was raided Monday morning by state police, according to a post she put on Twitter late in the day.
"There will be no update today. At 8:30 am this morning, state police came into my house and took all my hardware and tech," wrote Rebekah Jones at 5:00 PM. "They were serving a warrant on my computer after DOH filed a complaint. They pointed a gun in my face. They pointed guns at my kids."
Jones was fired from her job in May as the Geographic Information Systems manager for DOH's Division of Disease Control and Health Protection after she complained in an email to users of a state data portal that the state was manipulating data.
She announced that she had been removed from overseeing the dashboard and hinted that she had been stripped of the responsibility as a result of raising concerns about the state's commitment to transparency.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) said in a statement late Monday that it issued the search warrant after suspecting Jones of being responsible for sending of an unauthorized message to members of the State Emergency Response Team responsible for coordinating the public health and medical response.
The November 10 message, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, urged recipients to "speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don't have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late."
At the time of the message, Florida had reported 17,460 coronavirus-related deaths among Florida residents and nonresidents.
Jones says her Covid-19 database published data the Florida governor wanted to suppress
FDLE said in a statement that the search warrant was issued for Jones' Tallahassee home and FDLE began an investigation "after receiving a complaint from the Department of Health regarding unauthorized access to a Department of Health messaging system which is part of an emergency alert system, to be used for emergencies only. Agents believe someone at the residence on Centerville Court illegally accessed the system."
FDLE said that when agents arrived at Jones' home, "they knocked on the door and called Ms. Jones in an attempt to minimize disruption to the family."
"Ms. Jones refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung up on agents," the statement said. "After several attempts and verbal notifications that law enforcement officers were there to serve a legal search warrant, Ms. Jones eventually came to the door and allowed agents to enter."
According to the video Jones posted on Twitter, police pointed guns at her and ordered her husband to appear. "Come outside the house," they commanded, asking who else was in the house. She replied it was her two children and husband.
"Come down the stairs, now," police shouted. "POLICE, come down now."
Jones screeched: "They just pointed a gun at my children," and that is where the video ended.
Jones had attracted national attention for her work creating the dashboard, which had been singled out for praise last spring by Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force.
After she was removed for what the governor's office called "insubordination," Jones created a competing dashboard. Her version draws upon state data but offers an expanded menu of metrics, including data the state was not making public at the time — such as hospital bed availability by facility, a key number, especially now as the number of confirmed cases soars.
She also developed the COVID monitor, a dashboard to report Covid-19 cases by school, data which Florida officials collect but for months refused to make publicly available.
Rebekah Jones accuses Governor Ron DeSantis of ordering the raid
Jones also remained defiant about her former employer, conducting interviews with national news organizations critical of what she persistently said was a failure of the DeSantis administration to be transparent with the state's Covid data.
She wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald in July that other state workers were being silenced for expressing their concerns about the state's handling of the coronavirus and its data collection.
On Monday, she accused Governor Ron DeSantis via Twitter of orchestrating the raid.
"They took my phone and the computer I use every day to post the case numbers in Florida, and school cases for the entire country," she said. "They took evidence of corruption at the state level. They claimed it was about a security breach. This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo."
She added: "This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."
FDLE said the investigation is active.
Jones could not immediately be reached.
The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Cover photo: imago images / ZUMA Wire