Rebekah Jones Tried to Protect Florida From COVID-19—and Then Its Governor Came After Her

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Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

From Cosmopolitan

The pounding started around 8:30 a.m. “POLICE, SEARCH WARRANT, OPEN THE DOOR!” It was a Monday in December and her two children were still asleep. She was wearing a Hogwarts T-shirt and sweatpants. But she’d been expecting this.

The noise woke her daughter, who started to cry. Calmly, she left the kids with her husband. Then she grabbed a camera from the desk in her room. She went downstairs, placed it by the front door, and pressed record. “OPEN THE DOOR—NOW!” The pounding was getting louder.

Seven months ago, she’d been living an anonymous life with her family on this quiet, dead-end street in Tallahassee. Now her face and name were plastered all over the news. The office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had called her insubordinate. She’d gotten a tip last night that he was “coming for [her] and he was going to come hard.” Outside were more than half a dozen officers in tactical vests brandishing a sledgehammer and automatic weapons.

Hands held high, she opened the door.



I.

It was April 2020 when Rebekah Jones says* they first asked her to change the numbers. Then a 30-year-old scientist at the Florida Department of Health (DOH), she’d spent nearly two months building the platform that the state was using to provide daily updates to the press and public on COVID-19, including number of tests, confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Jones was so proud of the dashboard—which included six maps and covered half a million lines of data—that she monitored it for up to 16 hours a day. It had been praised by the state surgeon general and by then–White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, MD, for its functionality and transparency.

But now, a top state official was telling her to change the test positivity rate of certain counties to align with the state’s maximum threshold for reopening, according to Jones. (Requests for comment from Shamarial Roberson, Florida’s deputy secretary for health, went unanswered, but she previously told the Tampa Bay Times, “It is patently false to say that the Department of Health has manipulated any data.”) “There were counties that had, like, 18 or 20 percent positivity,” Jones recalls. “And she was like, ‘Well, just change it to 10.’”

Up until that moment, Jones had had plenty of concerns with how Florida was handling the pandemic, but she considered them outside of her purview—matters of policy, not data (for example, the decision to exempt rural counties from more stringent reopening criteria). This was the first time she’d been asked to outright lie. At first, she says, she laughed out loud: “I thought it was a joke.”

Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

But the official didn’t back down, she says. “She just stared, dead-eyed,” recalls Jones. “She said, ‘I once had a data person who told me, You tell me what you want the numbers to show and I’ll make it happen.’” After that, says Jones, “I made it very clear I was not comfortable.”

At the time, she loved her job—“I lived for it.” Before the pandemic, she’d worked on coordinating hurricane response after Hurricanes Michael and Dorian, helping organize hospital patients’ movements around the country to open beds. She felt like she was impacting people’s lives in an immediate way. “For me, I’m a person who has always thrown myself into my work,” she explains. “It’s been a point of contention with my husband. Before COVID, there’d be a lot of days when I wouldn’t be coming home until 8 or 9 at night.”

Being asked to lie felt like an affront to everything she cared about—and everything she’d worked so hard on for months. Her dashboard “was as honest a view of what was going on in the state as we could make,” she says. She felt proud that she was keeping the public informed about a growing public health crisis. She spent hours each day responding to questions from the public and was even about to release a version in Spanish. But that night, she became so stressed that she threw up: “Knowing how many people were going to get killed and that any model we did would undercount them [if we changed the data] and it not mattering to the people in charge….” It was all too much. It was all so wrong.

On May 18, Jones was fired from her job. An official statement from the Florida DOH said it was for “insubordination” and that Jones had modified the dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors. But she tells a different story: “I was fired for refusing to manipulate data to drum up support for the governor’s plan to reopen.” The Friday before, she’d asked her boss how to submit an anonymous whistleblower complaint raising alarm about the state’s lies, she says. Her termination took place Monday morning before she got the chance.

II.

Let’s revisit, for a moment, this early-pandemic viral internet classic: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” That was Florida, back in the spring of 2020, when dozens of new coronavirus cases per day did not stop Governor DeSantis from famously allowing spring breakers to party, with few restrictions, on the state’s beaches.

By April, DeSantis—a rising star in the Republican party and a strong ally of former President Trump—succumbed to public pressure for a state closure. But by late in the month, despite the fact that Florida’s case count had mushroomed from 1,977 on March 25 to 32,846 on April 28, the governor was determined to reopen. And he wanted this opening to be “data driven,” he said publicly. That’s how he ended up on an unlikely but explosive collision course with Rebekah Jones.

Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

At the time, data was under vicious assault nationally. The president had been downplaying the virus for months, wanting states to end restrictions, which were economically costly (“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” he tweeted on April 17, in response to measures imposed by its Democratic governor). Later, Trump officials would interfere with the release of CDC reports and remove public data about COVID-19’s spread.

DeSantis, who has been mentioned as a 2024 presidential hopeful, followed Trump’s lead. He “suppressed unfavorable facts, dispensed dangerous misinformation, dismissed public health professionals, and promoted the views of scientific dissenters,” according to a damning investigation published in December by the Sun Sentinel. As the pandemic progressed, scientists and doctors like Craig Spencer MD, MPH, and Rose Marie Leslie, MD, spoke up on Twitter and TikTok about politicians’ lies and lack of transparency. But even after encountering this herself, Jones did not plan to join them.

Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

Instead, she fought back privately, letting an email list of people who received her updates know that she was no longer maintaining the state’s dashboard and suggesting they be “diligent” in how they used the data from now on, according to Jones. When state lawmakers called for an investigation into her firing, she refused media requests, preferring to stay out of the public eye.

It was DeSantis who brought the fight to her doorstep—figuratively, then literally. Thus began a long, strange saga that would end with her sweating and shivering in the mental isolation room of a Tallahassee jail, delirious with COVID-19, the very disease she’d become famous for trying to inform the public about.

It all started during a May press conference, when DeSantis was asked about Jones being removed from the Florida DOH. He called her termination a “nonissue.” After that, “his Chihuahua of a press manager started attacking me,” Jones recalls. Then, on May 20, DeSantis went further, denying that Jones had built the prized dashboard in the first place during an appearance with former Vice President Pence. He called her credentials into question, suggesting she wasn’t really a scientist.

As Jones recently put it on Twitter, he “decided to launch me into the news cycle, defame me, and attempt to strip all of my hard work and experience from me.” (When reached for comment, the governor’s office referred Cosmo to a tweet by Florida’s Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez calling Jones “a failed state employee” and a link to an article about Jones on a self-described “MAGAzine” that also published stories about election conspiracy theories.)

Finally, and most explosively, he alleged she was under “active criminal charges in the state of Florida” for something entirely unrelated to data or the pandemic—for “cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment.” (Partly accurate, but we’ll get to that.)

This time, Jones did not fight back privately. On May 22, she appeared on Chris Cuomo’s show on CNN from her bedroom, incisively and confidently laying out how she’d been asked to manipulate data for the state. It was a devastating (for DeSantis, at least) performance. After defending herself, “I naively believed I could just go back to being a private person,” she says.

Years earlier, Jones had aspired to be a journalist, shedding light on injustice and suffering and speaking truth to power. After becoming a mother during her junior year of college, she’d decided to focus on solving problems, not covering them. That’s how she got into earth science.

But she’d never been afraid to stand up to authority. She grew up poor, intermittently food and housing insecure, the daughter of a scrappy mother whom she watched face injustice after injustice. Once, when an elementary school teacher called her mother a “bad mom,” 8-year old Rebekah called the woman an “evil bitch.” By junior year, she was thrown out of class for declining to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance (the “implied deference to God” made her uncomfortable). She called Mississippi civil liberties experts, who agreed she was within her rights, and ended up converting other students to her cause.

In college at Syracuse University, Jones felt different than most of her peers, gravitating toward the few other poor kids on campus. “Poor people don’t talk to each other the way rich people do,” she says. “We’re more like, Life is shit, here’s all the stupid shit I did today. We’re very honest. We said things that make people uncomfortable.”

For Jones, life had been a struggle, full of people who underestimated her, so when DeSantis came for the young female scientist who was making him look bad, she didn’t flinch. Instead, she took him on directly on CNN, NPR, CBS, and Twitter, each time coming off as self-assured, almost bored, wildly in command of the science—and not at all intimidated by the pugilistic governor who seemed obsessed with discrediting her.

“They’re not listening to the scientists,” Jones told The Guardian in August. “They’re just going to let everybody fend for themselves.” On Twitter, she also began pointing out issues she saw with Florida’s data since she had no longer been managing it, including what she claims were 76 mysteriously deleted deaths in August (one was a 9-year-old boy who died in June 2020).

Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

In July, she filed a whistleblower complaint accusing the Florida DOH of punishing her for refusing to falsify state records. “Retaliating against a whistleblower in the United States is not just unlawful,” she says. “It is reprehensible.”

Eventually, she garnered hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and morphed from scientist to pandemic cult hero, a sort of Floridian Fauci. DeSantis mocked her for that too, saying, “Just because you’re a darling of some corners of the fever swamps, that does not exempt you from following the law.” She responded by changing her Twitter bio to “#Insubordinate ‘darling of fever swamps.’”

But it was clear she was getting under the governor’s skin. Just after Jones began speaking out in June, DeSantis’s approval rates started slipping. “I am by no means the only person who is critical of Ron DeSantis,” she says. “He made a lot of very bad policy decisions. But for some reason, I’ve become that person who represents all of that and he wants to crush me.”

“I don’t belong on a stage with him, and yet here I am,” she continues. “I don’t think he’s going to back down. Men like that don’t know how.”

As for the “active criminal charges” that DeSantis had told the public about—well, “it’s not shocking that people love to bring that up without bringing up why that happened,” she says, of the cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment charges levied against her in 2019 (two of which have been dropped, one is pending). According to Jones, an ex-boyfriend accused her of cyber sexual harassment for naming him in a blog post about how he’d allegedly abused her. (Jones sued the same ex-boyfriend a couple weeks later for sexual battery, emotional abuse, and defamation, amongst other things. Shortly after, she dismissed the charges.) “He claimed that by sharing it online, I was damaging his reputation.”

Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

Which speaking of reputations, Jones’s past is admittedly “complicated," and she owns it. It also includes an alleged violation of a domestic violence injunction (dropped), a trespassing charge (dropped), and criminal mischief (dropped). All the alleged wrong she’s done has been dredged up online to cast doubt on her motivations for what she claims to have done right. Of course, it’s fair to question, Who gets to be a hero? It’s also worth asking, though, Who or what is the bigger villain?

III.

The raid on Jones’s townhouse in December, captured on one of the officers’ body cams and on the video she recorded herself, is hard to watch (“Do not point that gun at my children!” she can be heard shrieking at one point).

She remembers standing in her driveway in shock, next to her holiday decorations—haystacks and pumpkins on the lawn, string lights lacing on the bushes—as her bleary-eyed children and husband came down the stairs and outside onto the front stoop, still in their PJs. Meanwhile, officers went through her home looking for computers, hardware, and her cell phone.

The official reason for the raid was that someone had “illegally hacked into [the Florida DOH’s] emergency alert messaging system,” said a state law enforcement officer. But Jones wasn’t having it. “This was DeSantis,” she tweeted. “He sent the gestapo.”

She sued the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for various reasons, including for violating her right to free speech and due process. (FDLE denied the lawsuit allegations and called its protocols that day “normal” in a statement, while DeSantis insisted it wasn’t a raid—it was a “valid process” conducted with “integrity.”) Jones denied—and still denies—that she was behind the mystery hacker’s unauthorized message, sent to nearly 1,800 government agency employees in November. “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” the message read. “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.”

Jones insists that if she’d sent the message, the data would have at least been right (the number of deaths was rounded down by 460). And the technology site Ars Technica reported that the health department’s emergency alert system—the one Jones is accused of hacking—used a password and username that had been widely shared on Reddit channels and was even publicly available on the Florida DOH site.

The state claims it traced the message to Jones’s IP address. Jones claims they knew her IP address from when she worked from home. As usual, she is refusing to back down. “This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly,” she wrote on Twitter after the raid. “If DeSantis thought pointing a gun at my face was a good way to get me to shut up, he’s about to learn just how wrong he was.”

The raid splashed her all over the news again. “The police released my home address and my cell phone number,” she says, “and the school my son went to. I got death threats to my home mailing address. I had a couple asshole reporters who would not leave my house no matter how much I politely asked them to.” She hired a bodyguard. There were rape threats, threats against her children. None of it made her want to back down, but at the same time, she admits, “I was actually terrified.”

In January, she was charged with a felony for allegedly accessing the state emergency message system. If convicted, she could face five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. By then, she had moved her family to the D.C. area, in hopes of putting this chapter behind them all and starting over. She had to return to Florida to turn herself in or else risk extradition.

She drove the nearly 1,000 mile, two-day journey alone, determined to keep her kids from reexperiencing the trauma of policemen pounding down their door. It was days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. “Insurrectionists [are] planning attacks across the country this week and Florida is jailing scientists for the crimes of knowing and speaking,” she tweeted. “Censored by the state of Florida until further notice.”

The morning she was supposed to leave, Jones started feeling unwell. Three hours into the drive, she was so sick, she had to pull off the interstate and check into a hotel, where she puked up Tylenol and spent the night going in and out of consciousness. The next day, she finished the drive—“it was a miracle I did not die or kill someone in my car,” she says—and was booked into the Leon County Detention Facility, where she tested positive for COVID-19. It felt “like my skull was made of glass and someone was hitting it with a hammer.”

The irony of spending a night in jail with an illness she’d tried to warn everyone about, which had now infected more than 1.5 million people in the state and killed nearly 25,000, was not lost on her. She was isolated to keep from exposing other inmates. When she was released from jail that Monday, “there were paparazzi waiting for me,” she says. “That was one of the strangest moments of my life.”

Jones limped to a hotel, far too ill to drive home. “I didn’t want to go to a hospital because I didn’t want DeSantis to know where I was,” she says. Instead, alone in her hotel room, with a view of Florida’s capitol building, she slept, threw up, and slept some more. “I remember standing at the window at some point, and I just stared at it. It was so strange to be looking at that, knowing the power that was coming after me and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.”

Photo credit: Jared Soares
Photo credit: Jared Soares

IV.

These days, back in D.C., far from Florida and DeSantis, Jones is finally starting to exhale. “It felt like some bit of my freedom was earned back just by leaving,” she says. “I needed that feeling. I think my son needed that feeling.” She’d found him sleeping in the hallway outside her bedroom in the nights after the raid.

She’s talking to me from her new bedroom in front of a bookshelf organized by color, multitasking by booking pediatrician appointments and drinking Coke Zero while she fields my questions. Her lawsuit against the FDLE has been dismissed (at Jones’s request until her criminal case is resolved), but she’s still proceeding with a whistleblower complain against the Florida DOH, which is pending.

And she’s still running her own independent Florida COVID-19 dashboard, Florida COVID Action, which she started last June after being fired and eventually raised more than $500,000 on GoFundMe to help support her site (along with her living expenses). She’s also wrapping up work on The Covid Monitor, a project with Google and the nonprofit FinMango, which documents COVID-19’s spread at schools. The work has helped her survive the longest year of her life (and, quite frankly, many people’s lives). “When I’m down, I think of what I can do to improve what I’m doing,” she says. “As long as I’m focusing on that, I’m not thinking about Twitter trolls or DeSantis.”

She’s writing a book about her experience. And although she’d love to get another job working in science, she’s not holding her breath. “I haven’t met a whistleblower who has landed on their feet any time in the immediate aftermath of whistleblowing,” she says wryly.

When asked what she hopes to get out of her lawsuit, she pauses and then says, “An apology. I want a fucking apology.”

*This article includes a summary of allegations Jones filed in her complaint against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) relating to the raid on her house. She also filed a separate whistleblower complaint against the Florida Department of Health (DOH) regarding the events recounted here. Jones recently dismissed the FDLE complaint based on the pending criminal charge the state filed against her but plans to refile after resolution of the criminal case. Jones’s complaint against the DOH is still pending. The state has denied the allegations made by Jones in both complaints.

Photographs by Jared Soares. Videography by Alyssa Schukar. Video editing by Amanda Evans. Hair and makeup by Melissa Schwartz Jones.

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