Why Florida Public Health Officials Won't Blow the Whistle on Ron DeSantis - 2020-12-17
Perhaps you've heard in recent days of the extent to which Florida's government has limited public health data about the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of the health of the state's residents. Indeed, Florida's government, under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, has provided an object lesson during this pandemic in the how both whistleblower protection statutes and the First Amendment fail to provide adequate protection to government employees who want to blow the whistle.
Over the past several months, the DeSantis administration has engaged in a variety of stratagems to suppress truthful information and disseminate falsehoods about the pandemic. Yet, save for Rebekah Jones—who says she was sacked in May as the Department of Health's Geographic Information System manager for refusing to manipulate the Sunshine State's COVID case numbers and is now under state investigation over messages she sent urging others to speak out—few, if any, state employees have stepped forward as whistleblowers. Perhaps most disturbing: For reasons that have not yet been explained, starting on Oct. 24 and continuing through the Nov. 3 general election, the state ceased including long-backlogged COVID-related deaths in its daily death counts. The state resumed including these numbers on a consistent basis on Nov. 17—two weeks after the national election. Thus, for over three weeks, the Sunshine State systematically underreported COVID deaths in a way that made the numbers look rosier than they actually were.
The DeSantis administration's efforts to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative were not limited to significantly underreporting the state's COVID deaths: They extended to suppressing data regarding COVID spread in public institutions such as public schools, hospitals, and prisons. Moreover, in September, DeSantis imposed a code of silence on state health department employees in an effort to minimize the public's appreciation of the pandemic's risks. The department went silent on social media from September to November regarding the mortal risks associated with COVID—but continued to post about anodyne topics such as flu vaccinations, the risk of lead poisoning, and the benefits of regular hearing tests. In addition, county health department spokespeople were prohibited from speaking out about the COVID epidemic—at least until after the Nov. 3 election. So too, a state COVID task force organized by Florida's Surgeon General Scott Rivkees met a few times this spring and then quietly disappeared into oblivion.