COVID-19

Republican Florida governor is 'cooking the books'

Ron DeSantis, a Donald Trump loyalist who has refused to slow Florida’s reopening or implement a statewide mask mandate

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US PRESS GROUP

Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s faltering response to soaring new coronavirus numbers in his state is descending into acrimony, after an accusation his administration is “cooking the books” in an effort to hide the true impact of the devastating pandemic.

The claim from the state’s former leading Covid-19 data scientist comes as Florida records a second successive day of new cases of the disease above 5,000 – the highest figures since the pandemic began.

The situation in Florida is part of a widespread surge of infections across broad swathes of the US, especially in states – often run by Republicans – which have rushed to reopen their economies.

So far this month, Florida has seen confirmed cases more than double from 56,000 to above 114,000, and set daily records on seven of the last 13 days. Meanwhile, the number of deaths among Florida residents has climbed to almost 3,400.

Rebekah Jones, who says she was fired from her job in charge of the state’s official Covid-19 database in May for refusing to manipulate its figures, claimed on social media to have evidence that employees at Florida’s department of health “have been instructed this week to change the numbers and begin slowly deleting deaths and cases so it looks like Florida is improving next week in the lead-up to July 4, like they’ve ‘made it over the hump’.”

“They’re only reporting all these cases now so they can restrict reporting next week to make everyone think it’s over,” she said.

DeSantis, a Donald Trump loyalist who has refused to slow Florida’s reopening or implement a statewide mask mandate, angrily dismissed the claim, calling a reporter from the Miami Herald who asked him about it “embarrassing”.

“You guys have been on the conspiracy bandwagon for months,” he snapped at a press conference on Thursday, without addressing the specifics of Jones’s assertion. “You need to move on.”

By any standards, it has been a rough week for DeSantis, who is standing firm against mounting pressure from public health officials and even some political allies for tighter measures to counter the virus’s steep resurgence in his state, with its large population of vulnerable elderly retirees.

A month after berating reporters whom he said “waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York,” that scenario has been realized, with New York joining New Jersey and Connecticut this week in ordering visitors from Florida – among other badly affected states – to quarantine.

Hospital systems around Florida are reporting steep drops in the availability in intensive care and other beds, even as the department of health changes how it records such figures.

While DeSantis resists calls for a statewide mandate on masks, municipalities including Miami have enacted the requirement; Miami’s mayor Francis Suarez is proposing $250 fines for those who refuse.

Suarez has also debunked DeSantis’s often-repeated claim that increased testing accounts for Florida’s coronavirus surge. “It has really nothing to do with an increased amount of testing. It has to do with more people that are getting tested coming out positive,” he said.

In Miami-Dade county this week, the rate of positivity of those tested reached 27 percent, almost three times greater than the county’s average 14-day target of 10 percent.

The masks issue has become a political battle in Florida, with Palm Beach county passing a mandate in the face of furious resistance from some residents, one of whom declared at an extraordinary commission meeting this week that the move would “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out the door”.

Even Marco Rubio, Florida’s senior Republican US senator, weighed in. “Everyone should just wear a damn mask,” he said.

But DeSantis, like the president, has refused to advocate for the wearing of masks, despite incontrovertible scientific evidence they help curtail the spread of the disease.

“Ron DeSantis has followed Donald Trump’s erratic leadership for three and a half months, and it clearly has not worked out for Floridians,” said Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic party. “Their eagerness to declare victory before the job was done has led us to this moment.”

Data scientist Jones, meanwhile, continues to be one of the biggest thorns in the governor’s side. After her dismissal, for “insubordination” according to DeSantis’s staff, the geospatial science graduate created her own privately-funded rival Covid-19 database for Florida.

Based on official state figures, Jones’s platform expands them in several key areas, notably increased numbers of cases and deaths. Those figures are higher, she says, because Florida reports only statistics for residents, and does not include out-of-state visitors.

Additionally, the Jones database features statistics that the state site does not, including the number of ICU beds available across Florida, and whether any of its 67 counties meets current state criteria for reopening. As of Thursday, only three did.

The Florida department of health did not respond to a request from the Guardian for comment about Jones’s allegations of data deletion, or the discrepancies between her database and the state figures.

Public health experts say that accurate data is essential for responding to the pandemic.

“That data is clearly indicating we have a problem. Testing data, symptom data, hospitalisation data, it’s all been clearly going up,” said Dr Mary Jo Trepka, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at Florida International University’s Robert Stempel College of public health.

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