AFT president endorses Florida COVID data conspiracy theory in order to justify school reopening stance

"They have been hiding cases... we are in all those schools," she said in reference to Florida's COVID-19 numbers.

In private statements that I obtained between March 18 and March 22, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten articulated that, had Florida been ‘accurately’ reporting their positive COVID-19 cases, this would have possibly demonstrated that their numbers are actually worse than California's numbers. She floated this contention in response to being challenged on her union’s school-reopening position.

For clarification purposes, I reiterated to her how ‘I said previously that "Florida schools have been open since September, and no significant difference in case numbers or other statistics was found between them and California's numbers." In response, you explained how Florida is hiding cases. If I'm following correctly--and please correct me if I'm not--your contention is that, had Florida been accurately reporting their cases, this would have demonstrated that their numbers are actually worse than California's numbers. Is that correct?”'

Weingarten answered this question by stating that she and the AFT ‘don’t know but we think it could be as bad[.]’

I had relayed to her beforehand how ‘Florida schools have been open since September, and no significant difference in case numbers or other statistics was found between them and California's numbers.’ Her explanation for this narrative-contradicting statistic was that the state of Florida has ‘been hiding cases.’

When I asked for evidence to support this claim, she merely stated that ‘De[S]antis lies and fires people .. look what he did to the health officer[.] People don’t want to talk because they are terrorized[.]‘

She then began to push the conspiracy theory that Rebekah Jones, a “top scientist,” was fired from Florida Department of Health (DoH) for refusing to falsify COVID-19 case numbers in order to support Governor Ron DeSantis’ plans to reopen the economy.

According to Weingarten, Rebekah Jones did nothing wrong. All that happened was that Jones was “transparent on Covid cases and she was fired.” Her computer was “seized in a police raid“ raided only after she “continued [to] privately” record COVID-19 data in her own dashboard.

Contrary to Weingarten’s beliefs and contentions, the story is entirely fictitious. Christina Pushaw, an international political consultant and writer based in Washington, DC., penned in February a piece for Human Events which debunked the Jones fantasy.

Before moving on, it’s worthy of note that even mainstream outlets, such as the AP and the Washington Post, have debunked the claim that Florida is undercounting its death toll or case count, or that its less restrictive COVID-19 policies have created significant disparities in these numbers when compared with more restrictive states.

Writing for the Washington Post, Phillip Bump points out how “DeSantis’s habit of leaning into criticism from his political opponents has heightened scrutiny of how the pandemic is unfolding in his state. But, overall, the numbers from Florida aren’t much different from other places, muddying efforts to cast DeSantis as incompetent or nefarious.”

Furthermore, David A. Lieb, reporting for the AP, reports that “California and Florida both have a COVID-19 case rate of around 8,900 per 100,000 residents since the pandemic began, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And both rank in the middle among states for COVID-19 death rates — Florida was 27th as of Friday; California was 28th.”

There are 3 main lies which Pushaw debunks in her piece. The first is that, as NPR describes her, Jones was a “top scientist“ leading Florida’s response to the pandemic. This is not the case. Pushaw explains that, in fact, ‘Jones has held three jobs in her field; all three have ended in her being terminated and criminally charged. She has a Master’s in geography from Louisiana State University, where she worked until she was fired.‘

In reality, Jones was merely ‘a geographic information systems manager, overseeing the COVID-19 web portal,’ according to Pushaw.

The second lie peddled by Jones is regarding the reasons she was fired from her job at the Florida Department of Health. Jones claimed after the fact that ‘Deputy Secretary for Health Shamarial Roberson had asked her to,’ according to the AP, “manipulate data to mislead the public” about 'the safety of reopening rural counties.’

This is simply false. As Pushaw cited in her piece, ‘Emails show a state epidemiologist told Jones to temporarily disable data export from the dashboard to verify dates against other official sources. The data was aggregated from local public health authorities in 67 counties; it couldn’t be falsified or hidden.’

Jones’ third lie was concerning the manner in which she was detained by law enforcement in December of last year.

Pushaw explains that ‘The message that prompted the investigation, sent via Florida’s emergency notification service, read in part: “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead.” Additionally, ‘the warrant alleges Jones downloaded confidential information about 19,182 employees, including their emergency contacts, personal phone numbers and addresses.’

After the authorities subsequently raided her home, Rebekah Jones insisted that ‘ she was a ‘victim of “police violence.”’ However, it is reported that, ‘[w]hen officers arrived with a warrant, Jones—whose arrest record includes battery on a police officer—refused to answer the door for 22 minutes. After she finally let them in, FDLE conducted the search with restraint and professionalism.’

She repeated this claim when she turned herself in to the authorities on January 16, citing desires to “to protect my family from continued police violence, and to show that I’m ready to fight whatever they throw at me.”

Unfortunately for Jones, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) ‘[had] released full body camera footage that refutes Jones’ allegations of “violence.”’

Nevertheless, Randi Weingarten tweeted her support for Jones at the time, shortly following her arrest.

“Thank you, @RepValDemings ... this sounds like your current Governor is trying to silence @GeoRebekah -who is a courageous public servant and scientist who is simply trying to make sure Floridians know the truth on #covid in Florida.” - [From December 7, 2020]

Not to mention, Jones has a history of delusions and false claims of victimhood. Pushaw writes that, in 2017, ‘she accused police of “kidnapp[ing]” her after being detained under the Baker Act, an involuntary psychiatric hold for people who pose a danger to themselves or others.’

These lies make up the conspiracy theory which AFT president Randi Weingarten used in order to justify she and her union’s opposition to reopening schools in this country.

When reached for comment, Weingarten restated her belief that Jones is “well-respected.“

Weingarten said of Governor Ron DeSantis that, “like Trump[,] [he is] very focused on the economy regardless of ramifications. We need the economy to be right but we need people to be safe not expendible[.]”


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