Scientist Behind Florida’s Coronavirus Database Says She Was Fired for Refusing to Censor Data
The scientist behind Florida's widely praised coronavirus dashboard was fired Monday because she refused to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen," she told CBS12 News Monday.
Dr. Rebekah Jones' dismissal came the same day as much of Florida reopened for business, The Guardian pointed out, raising concerns about the data backing that decision.
"These allegations are disturbing," Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for the 15th Judicial Circuit which includes Palm Beach County, tweeted Tuesday. "Manipulating the data on Florida's COVID-19 dashboard could cost lives."
These allegations are disturbing. Manipulating the data on Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard could cost lives. “Jones… https://t.co/5WFwJtV9Nk— Dave Aronberg (@Dave Aronberg)1589904074.0
Until May 5, Jones had been in charge of a team of data scientists and public health officials at the Florida department of Health who created and managed the publicly accessible database that reported COVID-19 cases, testing and deaths, FLORIDA TODAY explained. The dashboard won wide praise, including from high-ranking White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx.
The first sign of trouble came over the last few weeks as the site had "crashed" and data had gone missing.
Then, Jones wrote an email Friday to members of the public and the media who had signed up for updates on the database, saying she and her office had been removed from control of the database as of May 5.
"I understand, appreciate, and even share your concern about all the dramatic changes that have occurred and those that are yet to come," she wrote. "As a word of caution, 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."
Then came the news that she had been fired from the Department of Health altogether, as she confirmed to FLORIDA TODAY Wednesday. According to the Tampa Bay Times, she had been ordered May 5 to remove data showing when people showed symptoms or tested positively for the virus before a case had been announced after the information was requested by the media. She complied, but said it was the "wrong call." She was later given the option to resign with a settlement or be fired.
The spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Helen Aguirre Ferré, defended her firing in a statement to the Miami Herald Tuesday.
"Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department's COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors," Ferré said.
DeSantis later challenged the idea that Jones was the architect of the dashboard.
"She is not the chief architect of our Web portal. That is another false statement, and what she was doing was she was putting data on the portal, which the scientists didn't believe was valid data," he said in Orlando Wednesday, as NPR reported.
This contradicts Jones' account in an email to FLORIDA TODAY, in which she said she created two applications in two languages, four dashboards and six maps.
"I worked on it alone, sixteen hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened I'll probably never get paid for [it]," she wrote.
Her firing has raised alarms for scientists and Democratic politicians.
"When politicians censor scientists and manipulate the numbers, the rest of us suffer," Columbia University biologist Dr. Lucky Tran tweeted in response. "The only way we get out of this pandemic is with facts, and acting upon the best science we have."
Scientists are getting fired for refusing to censor data and manipulate numbers. If you want to put more lives at… https://t.co/wC1caAnZmE— Dr. Lucky Tran (@Dr. Lucky Tran)1589894988.0
Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who represents the Tampa area, demanded answers from DeSantis, while state Senator José Javier Rodríguez from Miami and chair of the Florida Democratic party Terrie Rizzo called for an investigation, according to NPR and The Guardian.
"Floridians must have confidence that critical public health information produced and published on behalf of the state is accurate, complete and reliable. It is especially important during this period of economic reopening that decision-makers in the private and public sector — whether they be leaders of institutions, employers or parents — have access to accurate information as they make decisions impacting the lives and livelihoods of our families and communities," Rodriguez said, as NPR reported.
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It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.
Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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