‘Don’t be silenced by armed police raid at my Florida home, COVID whistleblowers. I won’t be’

I accepted many months ago that being a whistle-blower and critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mismanagement of COVID-19 would likely cost me my freedom.

I never expected armed police to enter my home to take my equipment and point guns at my children.

The whiplash my family and I experienced after the raid last week felt like deja vu of what I went through in May, with a violent, Gestapo-like twist.

The alleged crime: a message sent over a publicly accessible email account to Florida Department of Health employees urging them to come forward and speak up about what was happening in our state.

When DeSantis’ team and DOH officials ordered my termination in May, shortly after I discussed filing a whistleblower complaint regarding DOH administrators’ data secrecy and manipulation, the state thrust me into the public spotlight.

DeSantis attacked me in front of Vice President Mike Pence, allowed his press secretary to spread defamatory statements about me and tried to undermine my expertise, education and accomplishments.

I stepped forward, driven by a moral obligation to tell the truth and to warn people that he was lying about the safety of reopening the state.

Since that time, I have sought to provide Floridians the information and resources needed to make informed decisions during an aggressively anti-science period in American history.

I focused on the data.

I worked with Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, addressed several data and science conferences, and published the first major research article about COVID-19 in U.S. schools. I even nabbed spots on Fortune’s 40 under 40 and Elemental’s 50 Experts to Trust During a Pandemic.

My contacts throughout state government kept me current on DeSantis’ attempts to hide and manipulate information as I worked on several COVID-19 projects. Those contacts served as top officials in nearly every state agency involved with the COVID-19 response.

My access and expertise made me a thorn in the governor’s side, but merely an annoyance, not a threat. Or so I thought.

As I started looking toward a future after COVID, I had no idea police would storm my house with guns drawn on my children as retribution for the success and platform I had carefully crafted during the previous six months. They confiscated my equipment and my cell phone in an attempt to find dissenters in state administration and to shut down my data and reporting infrastructure.

My site went down for less than a day. I got a new computer, got back to work with The Covid Monitor and let people know I was not backing down.

But the emotional wounds from the raid and the message it sent to potential whistle-blowers trouble me.

As I sat in my living room watching police go through my entire house and walk out with thousands of dollars worth of equipment — paid for entirely by donations to my GoFundMe — I started mentally preparing for what I knew would come next.

First, a smear campaign. Dubious statements from the DeSantis administration claiming he had no idea what was going on. An unhinged press conference attacking my character and mental health (at a forum on getting rid of stigmas about mental health, no less).

Attacking scientists and whistleblowers is as American as apple pie. Any arguments to the contrary are naive and contrite.

But people’s refusal to be silenced is equally American. To all the would-be whistleblowers considering coming forward, but who might be scared by the raid on my home:

Never let the fear of retaliation temper your desire to be a good, honest person.

I will continue to speak truth to power, to provide critical information on coronavirus and environmental issues, and never allow a man so devoid of empathy and humanity silence my voice.

The stories of what happened inside the state during this pandemic will become more widely known over time. People who have been fired or quit will step forward. The revelations about the state’s obstruction during this response will change our democracy forever.

Until then, I will be here, focusing on the data.

Rebekah Jones is the former Florida Department of Health Geographic Information Science Manager. She is the founder of Florida COVID Action.

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