As All 50 States Start Reopening, Questions on Virus Tracking Data Fuel Concerns

May 21, 2020by Tyrone Beason, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
A protestor shouts at Vice President Mike Pence's motorocade as Pence and Florida governor Ron DeSantis arrive at the Westminster Baldwin Park retirement community, in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Pence and DeSantis visited the facility to assist in delivering PPE supplies in response to the coronavirus crisis. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is defending his administration’s reporting of coronavirus data, after a state Department of Health manager said she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 tracking data as officials moved to reopen the state.

Rebekah Jones, who was in charge of Florida’s online COVID-19 dashboard, told West Palm Beach station WPEC-TV, a CBS affiliate, that she was let go last week because she declined orders to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

DeSantis, speaking alongside Vice President Mike Pence during a visit to a nursing home in Orlando, said that the website’s COVID-19 reporting of new cases and deaths is public and transparent, and that Jones was at fault for insubordination and other personnel issues.

“What she was doing was she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” the Republican governor said. “She didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors. She had many people who were above her in the chain of command, so she was dismissed because of that and because of a bunch of different reasons.”

The dashboard Jones oversaw was praised last month as “extraordinary” by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. “This is what every department of health should have,” Birx said.

Florida state Rep. Tracie Davis, a Democrat from Jacksonville and a member of the state House Health Committee, questioned whether data given to the public and officials are reliable.

“We were told the reopening of Florida was built on studying the data. If that data was wrong or manipulated, that puts countless Floridians at risk for exposure to COVID-19,” Davis said.

The issue of data reporting has turned into a sensitive political issue as some Republican-led states, including Florida and Georgia, have moved aggressively to ease social distancing restrictions and restart their economies, despite warnings by federal health officials that moving too soon could spark a new rise in coronavirus infections.

President Donald Trump has long expressed support for fully reopening the country, and putting people back to work during the greatest jobless crisis since the Great Depression, sooner rather than later.

DeSantis said that Florida hadn’t seen new cases soar since the state started reopening, and that the death rate there is lower than in other states. He noted that the heavily populated Miami area reported 69 new cases Wednesday, down significantly from a high of 500 cases a day in early April.

He slammed critiques of his reopening plans as “just typical partisan narrative.”

There have been more than 47,470 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Florida, including 2,096 deaths, according to the latest totals released Wednesday by the state’s health department.

Local and state public health officials rely on accurate tracking of novel coronavirus cases, testing and deaths to determine when and how quickly to relax restrictions.

The office of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, was forced to apologize for its bungling of COVID-19 data collection and reporting after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found mixed-up dates and other mistakes.

Georgia’s Department of Public Health published a graph this month that showed new coronavirus cases declining over time in severely affected counties. But the daily entries were not arranged in chronological order, but in descending order. The chart was soon taken down.

Nationwide, confirmed cases climbed past 1,549,000 on Wednesday, with more than 93,200 deaths from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking cases.

All 50 states have now at least partially reopened, with Connecticut becoming the last to do so on Wednesday.

A poll of more than 1,000 Americans conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research this month found that 83% of those surveyed were at least somewhat worried that easing restrictions in their own communities might lead to new infections.

Local officials in a number of states, including Maryland and Alabama, are starting to see consequences as their restless residents venture out more and attend gatherings that are larger than what experts consider safe.

But with the loosening of restrictions in Alabama, some high schools have held graduation ceremonies that have drawn thousands of people, according to the AP, with images showing graduates hugging and crowding together with no face coverings.

Montgomery, Ala., Mayor Steven Reed warned that intensive care units at hospitals in the state capital were “maxed out” and that some patients are being diverted to facilities in Birmingham because COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks.

“They’re at a capacity that’s not sustainable and that puts everyone — our neighbors, our family, our friends, our church members, our colleagues — in harm’s way,” the Democratic mayor said at a news conference Wednesday.

There have been 950 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Montgomery County as of Tuesday, including 25 deaths, Reed said.

Statewide, the number of cases surpassed 12,000 on Monday, with nearly 490 people dying from COVID-19, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“We have to be honest with ourselves,” Reed said. “Although we are ready to get back to work — we’re ready to get back to enjoying our friends and our family and get back to doing the things we were doing prior to March of this year — we’re not there yet.”

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©2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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