May 20, 2020
I had a goal of writing a week’s worth of posts about the blessings this quarantine has brought me. And maybe I’ll get back to it tomorrow. But today, I’m thinking about Florida.
Specifically, I’m fascinated by the state’s coronavirus response. This started with an article my brother Mark sent me this morning: Where Does Ron DeSantis Go To Get His Apology? It’s from a conservative news site called The National Review.
Here’s how the article, by writer Rich Lowry, begins:
A couple of months ago, the media, almost as one, decided that Governor Ron DeSantis was a public menace who was going to get Floridians killed with his lax response to the coronavirus crisis.
In an interview with National Review, DeSantis says he was surprised at “how knee-jerk” the hostile coverage was, but he “also knew that none of these people knew anything about Florida at all, so I didn’t care what they were saying.”source: TNR
The article argues that Florida has had a better COVID-19 outcome than New York or California by bucking conventional wisdom. Rather than rushing to shut down the state, Governor DeSantis used his powers strategically. He focused on containing the virus at nursing homes and elder-care facilities, directing protective gear to these vulnerable facilities, even at the expense of hospitals, and eventually creating COVID-19–only nursing homes to isolate those with the virus.
Meanwhile, DeSantis told TNR, the media were freaking out about spring break sunbathers on Florida’s beaches. “I always believed that respiratory viruses were less likely to be transmitted in a hot outdoor environment,” he said. The science, he added, has proved him right on that count.
It all sounds so good. I confess, I want to be convinced. How wonderful it would be if we could contain this wily virus by targeting specific areas and populations, with minimal restrictions on the majority of the population?
Going forward, DeSantis said, he will continue to be flexible, but cautious. “Being measured and being thoughtful and just following data is important,” he said.
I was also excited about the data Mark sent me, which shows that Florida has had about 2,200 cases per one million residents, very similar to California’s 2,127 per million (and much less than New York, which is up around 18,000). This despite the fact that it was one of the last states to shutdown, going into lockdown only on April 3.
As is my wont, I went digging for more information.
And this is the headline I found, from this morning’s USA Today: After Scientist Fired, Governor Calls Coronavirus Data Manipulation Charge a “Non-Issue.”
Here’s the gist: Rebekah Jones managed the geographic information system team at Florida’s Department of Health. According to NPR, she helped create a COVID-19 dashboard that’s won praise from fellow scientists as well as the White House for it ease of accessibility and its detailed presentation of cases by ZIP code.
However, Florida Today, a division of USA Today, reports that “over the last few weeks [the COVID-19 dashboard] had “crashed” and gone offline; data has gone missing without explanation and access to the underlying data sheets has become increasingly difficult.”
Then on Friday, in an email to public health researchers, and members of the public who had signed up to receive updates from the portal, Jones wrote that the dashboard had been removed from her team’s management, and handed over to a different group, “for reasons beyond my division’s control.”
A few things happened on Monday. For one, phase one of Florida’s re-opening plan went into full effect. Most Floridians can now get their hair professionally cut, return library books, head to the gym and go out to eat, with restrictions.
Also on Monday, Jones left her job. DeSantis said he understood that she resigned because “she was tired and needed a break.” Jones told a local CBS affiliate that she was fired because she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”
Today, DeSantis called her insubordinate and said, of her claims that she created 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.”
I realize this is only one state out of 50, and one issue out of many facing our nation right now. It wouldn’t even seem close to the biggest — unless you stop to think about it for a moment. Florida is re-opening based on data. But if we’re to believe the scientist who created the database for the state, until the state took it away from her before firing her, the data is cooked.
The governor says she’s lying. She implies he is. The rest of us find ourselves in a world where the official numbers are now suspect, and we have no way of knowing what the true numbers are.
And this isn’t the Soviet Union, or some Latin American dictatorship, or even China. It’s Florida. And apparently, neighboring Georgia’s data looks questionable as well.
I want to believe there’s a better way to do this than the lockdown I’m living in. But when databases go wonky and scientists get fired and governors go on the attack, I lose my faith in pronouncements. I don’t know where to turn for something as simple as the facts.
Today, the battle for truth is in Florida. I live in California, so I’m okay. But then I remember: that’s what we said in January, about the virus and Wuhan.