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Rebekah Jones always knew she was different, and she was never afraid of “making good trouble.” Jones was born in rural Pennsylvania to a “wildly liberal feminist” mother who was a fighter and taught Jones “that if something was worth fighting for, you fought for it, and taught (her) the value of what really matters.” Her father was a “social creature and the friendliest man on the planet.” Her father could “strike up a conversation with anyone, at any time” and Jones inherited that trait from him. Both mother and father worked at blue-collar jobs, and Jones remembers a childhood that was “food and housing insecure and I hurt from hunger.” Jones knew from an early age she “never fit in, I stood out.”
When Jones was nine years old, the family moved to rural South Mississippi. It was hard for Jones in Mississippi, as her feminist mother had taught her an “ideology that was not openly embraced in a lot of parts of rural Mississippi.”
Jones attended Stone High School in Wiggins, Mississippi. Stone High School received attention in 2016 when a group of white students placed a noose a Black student’s neck and the victim’s family was discouraged from filing a report. A 2017 report showed that nationally, white students were over three times more likely to be in an AP class than Black students. Jones experienced these issues when she attended, and she demonstrated a self-actualized personality that belied a typical high school student
Jones understood that she was smart, white, and pretty, which gave her certain privileges others did not have. Students and staff were bullying a “goth” classmate of Jones for wearing all black, and Jones wore black for a solid week in solidarity. During her junior year Jones was in an AP class, and saw that one of her friends, a Black girl equally as smart, was being refused an AP spot. Jones confronted school officials about the unfairness and threatened to go to the ACLU. Both ended up in AP, and her friend became a doctor.
It was typical that an Army recruiter appeared weekly during senior year, and Jones wondered why no recruitment was being done for colleges or universities. The recruiter asked Jones if she was interested in joining, and Jones inquired whether the Army accepted LGBT individuals, which caused him to remark that he would put “all the fags on an island and blow it up.” Jones confronted him about the statement, and he lunged, physically assaulting Jones. The high school wanted to expel Jones, but she withdrew, moving to live with her grandmother in Pennsylvania.
When questioned how Jones could be so advanced in her empathy for other people, she responded “I was around people that were hungry all the time. Hungry for food, hungry for something better, hungry for life to just be more fair.” Jones’ grandparents are practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, and her mom is an agnostic. She despised religion growing up, having seen it weaponized, and does not have a religious affiliation.
Jones’ mother made it very clear that her four children were going to college and stressed the importance of education, telling Jones, “You can lose a house, you can lose a car, you can lose all your stuff but the one thing they can’t take away from you is your education.” Jones and her three siblings are college graduates, and all have successful careers.
Jones entered Syracuse University wanting to be a documentary filmmaker, “exposing terrible situations in the world,” and declared a journalism major. In Jone’s junior year, she took a climate change course, and it profoundly affected her life, leaving her with a feeling that “all the pieces had finally come together.” Jones met her future husband, a fellow student at Syracuse, fell in love at first sight, and became a mother. She graduated with a dual Geography and Journalism major.
Jones continued her studies at Louisiana State University which had the Southern Regional Climate Center as well as the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program in the Geography Department. Jones wanted to use her education skills to do research and communicate it effectively so people were safe from events like Katrina. Jones loved living in Baton Rouge. She loved the educational experience and the South Louisiana culture. In 2014 Jones got her Master’s degree in Geography and a Minor in Crises, Science and Health Communication.
After graduation Jones could have taken a high-paying job in the private sector but she chose public service with the State of Louisiana as a Coastal Resources Scientist. Wanting to spend more time in the field, Jones took a job with the Louisiana Sea Grant, working directly with Native American tribes.
In 2016 Jones enrolled at Florida State for her PhD and taught for two years, and “loved it.” While at Florida State, Jones entered into an abusive relationship with a manipulative man, who created a toxic situation and assaulted Jones. When Jones ended the relationship, the offender filed false allegations against Jones. In 2018, Jones left Florida State to become a GIS (Geography) Analyst for the Florida Department of Health (DOH).
Within nine months, Jones was promoted to a supervisory role, and in January of 2020 pressed for a data system tracking COVID-19 in Florida. Her superiors continually turned down Jones on establishing a data site. She kept pushing because John Hopkins “had a website that showed daily input and it was terrifying.”
“It was very informative in the beginning,” Jones said, “watching cases come in every day, the red bubbles on the black screen getting bigger and bigger and bigger, but it lost its’ utility as an informative tool when it basically just became a giant red bubble map, and everything on this giant red bubble on top of it made it look like an inescapable omnipresent threat in which people had no power, there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t get tested, and they didn’t know what to look for, or what it meant that the country had a giant red thing. Overwhelming people with fear and no power is the exact opposite of what you want to do, it can cause panic and anxiety. It is not particularly useful for the general public.”
On March 9, Governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-52, declaring a State of Emergency for COVID-19. Jones got permission for the data site which she set up in two days, having worked on it before. Jones felt it was important for the press to have immediate untethered access to the data as it was updated and noted, “I built relationships, and managed this (the data site) every day by myself.” Launched officially in March 2020, Jones used her graphic design experience to throw out the red and use blue color for data.
There came a point in time when Florida officials wanted businesses to reopen. The Deputy Secretary of Health (DSH) and Governor DeSantis asked business people how they wanted to open, then came to the scientists and said, “Hey, we are going to reopen, so make some science to back it up.” For two days Jones and her team worked on a matrix on how to open safely, but they noticed their main office had already written a plan on how to re-open without their input. Jones stated that she was asked to underreport the infection total and overcount the number of people getting tested so the data would support Governor DeSantis’s push to reopen Florida.
Governor DeSantis sent staff to DOH and they realized their plan was exactly the opposite of Jones’ team. The Surgeon General at DOH had been pushed out earlier when he advised that Floridians were to wear masks for at least a year. Jones watched the Governor’s staff interact with the Governor on the phone and the Governor was intent on reopening.
All the maneuvering and manipulation that the Governors’ staff and the DSH did not fit the hard data Jones team had developed. The DSH told Jones that she was going to obtain a list that said yes or no for each Florida county to reopen, and Jones was going to publish it. Jones responded, “Are we still claiming that it is based on the science, and the DSH said it is. I said no I am not going to do that. No, I am not going to do that.”
When the DHS told Jones to present false and unscientific data to the public, Jones “did not stop, I did not think about it, I did not have a revolutionary moment where I paced, and took a walk and thought about the consequences, I just said no.” A lifetime of being “that person led me to just say no.” Later that night Jones told her mother that she was sick to her stomach over what Governor DeSantis and DHS were doing, “they were going to get people killed. And I will not do that.”
The next day Jones was taken off the data dashboard, and when she asked her boss about filing a whistleblower complaint, she was fired. It took seven people to operate the COVID dashboard after Jones was terminated.
Jones stated that she had no plans to go public, but right after her termination, Governor DeSantis, in front of the Vice President of the United States, declared that Jones was not a scientist, that she had nothing to do with the data systems, and implied Jones was mentally unstable. Everything the Governor said was untrue; Jones is a scientist, she put together the data system (which had been acknowledged by the Surgeon General a few weeks earlier in a magazine) and she was far from mentally unstable. Jones was shocked that Governor DeSantis “came after her and realized that she had become a public person.” Jones was determined that the story not become about her, but about how information was being changed by the Governor and DOH that directly impacted on people’s lives.
Jones stated, “I will be damned if the story becomes about me. What really is important is the data, how it is being changed and what that might imply for people’s health. As the weeks went by, and everything the Epidemiologists and I had warned them about started to play out, I realized that half the state didn’t trust the first dashboard I built for the state because of everything that happened. They had nowhere to go, so I decided to build something better.” Jones used data that the state had refused to use, like hospital data, emergency management data, Department of Correction data, long term care data and anything else. Jones “decided to publish all of it.”
On July 17, 2020, Jones filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the DOH alleging she had been fired in retaliation for refusing to change the COVID-19 data as instructed by her supervisor and the Governor’s office.
Jones created her own dashboard for reporting coronavirus information called Florida COVID Action and another for coronavirus in schools called COVID Monitor. On December 7, 2020 at 8:30 in the morning, State Police served a search warrant on Jones’ house, taking all of her and her husband’s hardware and technical equipment. Jones knew that the search warrant was an act of retaliation for her criticism of how Florida had handled the pandemic.
Jones stated, “As soon as they left, I bought a new phone and a laptop. If the governor thought that sending armed men to my house would shut me up, he was wrong. DeSantis tried to make me irrelevant, but it did not work.“
On December 21, 2020, Jones filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement noting that the search and seizure at her house lacked probable cause, and was “based on a lie.”
On January 17, 2021 after the issuance of an arrest warrant, Jones turned herself in and spent a night in jail with COVID-19. Jones had been charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks, and electronic devices.
Jones is a self-actualized person who is intensely brilliant, courageous, beautiful, bold and made of steel. Florida is going to have a hard time burning this whistleblower at the stake.