TALLAHASSEE — As Vice President Mike Pence quietly looked on, Gov. Ron DeSantis unleashed his temper on a former state employee at the center of a debate over Florida’s coronavirus data.
DeSantis, visibly annoyed and raising his voice, blasted Rebekah Jones, age 30, who was fired this week from the Florida Department of Health after she raised doubts about the veracity of coronavirus testing data on the Florida Department of Health’s Covid-19 dashboard.
“She’s not a data scientist. She is somebody that has a degree in journalism communication and geography,” DeSantis told reporters in Orlando, growing animated. “She is not involved in collating any data, she does not have the expertise to do that.”
Pence, in town to discuss the state’s pandemic response and tour a long-term care facility, stood by as DeSantis, a Republican, criticized Jones professionally and noted her pending legal issues.
“She is also under active criminal charges in the state of Florida for cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment,” said DeSantis. “I asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on.”
Leon County court records show that Jones is facing a criminal stalking charge. She did not respond to requests for comment by phone on Wednesday. Earlier attempts to reach her at home and by phone were unsuccessful.
DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré issued a written statement Tuesday saying there was no data manipulation on the state’s coronavirus tracker and that Jones was fired for insubordination.
Florida Today published an email this week in which Jones expressed concern that the state coronavirus data tracker could become less transparent after she was removed from its oversight.
DeSantis on Wednesday defended the site and noted that it had drawn praise from Deborah Birx, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Birx has praised Florida’s data transparency during White House briefings.
“Our data is available, our data is transparent, in fact Dr. Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data,” said DeSantis.
He also lashed out at press coverage of early cororonavirus outbreak forecasts that predicted Florida’s health care infrastructure would be overrun. Those forecasts were based on the assumption that Florida officials would take no action against the outbreak, but DeSantis, on a near-daily basis of late, has held them up as evidence that his response to the virus was the right one, and that public health experts and members of the media who reported on them were wrong.
DeSantis also has blasted critics who he said predicted Florida would become the next New York or Italy, two notorious coronavirus hotspots.
“Hell, we’re eight weeks away from that and it has not happened,” said DeSantis, throwing his arms down and puffing his chest towards reporters as Pence stood by.
Wednesday’s performance was consistent with the governor’s reaction to critics since the coronavirus pandemic began. Early in his first term leading the battleground state, DeSantis was seen as a moderate who boasted bipartisan support. That image has evaporated as his attacks on critics of his coronavirus response have grown more angry.
Pence praised the state’s response to the outbreak.
“Florida has really set the pace,” he said during a tour of the care facility, according to the Orlando Sentinel.