The Internet is awash with conspiracy theories claiming death rates from Covid-19 are being exaggerated. There's little evidence behind any of these, and lots against them, but now someone closer to the action has spoken out, claiming to have been fired for not hiding the true numbers.
What may seem like a matter of purely local interest could have global implications, if Rebekah Jones's allegations are true, something that has yet to be confirmed.
Until last week Jones was the Florida Department of Health's General Information System team manager. In that role, she led the creation of the state's Covid-19 dashboard, which provides information on the number of cases in each of the state's counties. It's similar to the Johns Hopkins University dashboard widely used to track the virus' spread, but Jones's work also includes hospitalization data and has been praised for its clarity by scientists inside and outside Florida.
Last week Jones sent an email to dashboard users, many of whom work in public health, informing them she was no longer in charge. The email contained an explosive allegation. "As a word of caution," she wrote, "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."
Florida Today reports Jones's message did not come out of the blue. The previously reliable website had started crashing with data going mysteriously missing. Nevertheless, such things are more often glitches than a conspiracy. Jones's email clearly implied otherwise, referring to “data they are now restricting”. In an emailed statement to CBS12 News, Jones was more explicit, saying that her removal was "not voluntary" and that she was removed from her position because she was ordered to censor some data, but refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen."
Unsurprisingly, Governor Ron DeSantis has denied the allegation, claiming Jones “was tired and needed a break.” His communications director Helen Aguirre Ferré was less conciliatory, alleging to the Miami Herald a pattern of “insubordination” and “blatant disrespect for the professionals” from Jones.
DeSantis was much slower to lock his state down than many fellow governors, and has been hurrying to reopen. Critics predicted disaster, particularly after parties brought large numbers of people together. According to official statistics, Florida has paid little price for this, with both cases and deaths below the national average, adjusted for population.
This apparent relative success has been seized on both by those who claim lockdowns are unnecessary, and by those who favor the theory hot and humid weather impedes SARS-CoV-2's spread.
However, if Florida's data isn't accurate, it is pointless to use it as evidence for anything, other than the lengths authorities might go to to further a particular agenda. The speed with which the virus spreads also means that a hidden outbreak in one state could quickly infect others.
Jones told CBS12 News that over the last few weeks, the website "crashed and went offline, data disappeared with no explanation and access to the underlying data sheets became difficult," and since she was removed the dashboard still hasn't been fully repaired.
Meanwhile, claims continue to circulate on social media, bolstered by right-wing commentators, that death certificates are recording Covid-19 as the cause of death for people who died of other things, usually based on anonymous claims. In fact, regions where the virus is widespread have experienced surges in total deaths far beyond normal levels. Numerous statisticians have used excess deaths data to demonstrate that Covid-19 deaths are being under, not over-reported, in most hard-hit locations. Logistical challenges rather than government interference, has usually been blamed for this.