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Ousted Florida Health data official creates coronavirus tracking site, The COVID Monitor, for schools

Still no statewide COVID data for schools
Posted at 6:13 PM, Aug 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-21 18:21:53-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.  — As more schools reopen to in-person lessons, Florida's department of health still isn't publishing statewide data on school district COVID-19 cases.

We told you last month how the state was mulling the release of COVID-19 case data for schools, saying in a very generalized statement it's … "continuing to review and determine the most appropriate method."

Fast forward a few weeks, and though schools are reopening and a few cases are popping up, the health department is still sending the same statement.

"The Department is continuing to review and determine the most appropriate method for reporting outbreaks in schools," it reads.

"How can we make an informed decision on even the continuation of a school being open if there isn't data to make those decisions from?" said State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

In July, Eskamani said those details are key for Florida's health and safety. But at the moment, officials seem to be relying on districts to inform parents and staff directly. A look at the big picture isn't available.

"It definitely seems like public pressure is the only way that data will be released," Eskamani said.

 Rebekah Jones
Ousted Florida Health Department employee Rebekah Jones is undertaking a new project that aims to track coronavirus cases in schools across the U.S.

"Pressure" eventually pushed the state to give detailed info daily on Florida prisons and long-term care facilities. All of it is easily found on Florida Health's website. While officials may yet remedy the absence of school data — one Floridian isn't waiting.

Rebekah Jones, the ousted Florida Health data expert, has partnered with Google and nonprofit FinMango to create a website called The COVID Monitor. It aims to track cases not only in schools here— but across the nation, from kindergarten to college.

"Pretty much everybody was like, 'this doesn't exist … this does not exist,'" Jones said. "I was like, 'OK, let's build it.'"

The site sweeps up COVID-19 data from across the web. Things like press releases, news stories, info from health departments and more. It includes taking anonymous tips from school teachers.

The Monitor team then verifies the details, looking for additional sources or contacting districts, before marking cases confirmed.

"We make sure that we check the information we're putting up there, which is for me, one of the most important elements," Jones said. "I would never want to put out inaccurate information."

Officials terminated Jones from Florida Health after she made allegations the department was misrepresenting data, earlier this year. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis later told the press that Jones was fired was for insubordination.

"Yeah, it's a non-issue," DeSantis said in June.

Jones has since become a public figure, critical of the state's handling of COVID-19. Her new website, she hopes, will provide clarity at a time when many are seeking answers.

"We want people to know this is a place that they can go to," Jones said. "Letting them say, 'Hey, there is a resource out there for this.'"