Miami – The complicated story of how a Florida data scientist responsible for managing the state's coronavirus numbers wound up with state police agents brandishing guns in her house this week began seven long months ago, when the scientist, Rebekah D. Jones, was removed from her post at the Florida Department of Health.
Jones had helped build the statistics dashboard showing how the virus was rapidly spreading in a state that had been hesitant to mandate broad restrictions.
Two months in, Jones was sidelined and then fired for insubordination, a conflict that she said came to a head when she refused to manipulate data to show that rural counties were ready to reopen from coronavirus lockdowns. The specter of possible censorship by the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican allied with President Donald Trump, exploded into the frenetic pandemic news cycle, and Jones' defiance came to symbolize the growing questions over Florida's handling of the pandemic.
The arrival of state agents at her home in Tallahassee on Monday to execute a search warrant in a criminal investigation marked a new, dramatic chapter in Jones' saga, which at its core has always returned to the same basic question: Can Floridians, who are now in the midst of another alarming rise in coronavirus infections and deaths, trust the state's data?
"This isn't really unexpected," she said of last week's raid. "You take down a governor, he's going to come for you. Six months ago, I was just a scientist trying to do my job."
Jones' firing in May became a national flash point as DeSantis touted Florida's early success in battling the virus — a victory lap that turned out to be premature, given that infections and deaths later surged over the summer and are rising again. DeSantis cast Jones as a disgruntled ex-employee who is not an epidemiologist and whose claims about a lack of data transparency were unfounded.
The tiff with the governor turned Jones, 31, into a cause célèbre. By June, she had built her own dashboard to rival the state's, funded in part by donations from hundreds of thousands of newfound followers on social media.
Jones has spent months publicly urging health department employees to denounce what she says has been the manipulation and obfuscation of virus data to make Florida look better off than it really is. In July, she filed a formal whistleblower complaint.
But questions remain about why she was fired. State officials insist that her claims about hiding virus data are false. She was dismissed, they said, because she made unilateral decisions to modify the virus dashboard without approval.
"Our data is available," DeSantis said when Jones was fired. "Our data is transparent. In fact, Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data," he added, referring to Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House's coronavirus response, who had praised the state dashboard when Jones was overseeing it.
"So any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun," DeSantis concluded.
The new dashboard Jones set up surfaces some data about virus cases that had been buried deep in PDF files on the state website and generally shows a higher number of cases than the number reported by the state. It also includes information from other agencies, such as hospitalization rates from the Agency for Health Care Administration that are not on the state dashboard.
But hers has remained a mostly one-woman operation. Though several of her former co-workers have recently left the department, they have not spoken publicly about why they stopped working there, nor have they joined Jones' cause.
The story took a surprising new turn on Monday, when agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement appeared at the door of Jones' townhouse.
"Come outside!" one of the agents barked as she stepped out and put her hands up. "Outside!"
The first agent stepped in and ordered Jones' husband to come downstairs. Two other agents followed with guns drawn. One pointed his weapon upstairs, where Jones' 11-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter had been sleeping.
"He just pointed a gun at my children!" Jones yelled.
The agents had come to serve a search warrant for Jones' computers and other electronics. Jones posted a 31-second video clip of the agents' arrival on Twitter on Monday afternoon, creating new outrage against DeSantis, who in the eyes of her supporters has continued to try to downplay the virus.
The search was part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized messages sent last month to a group of health department employees using an internal emergency alert system.