Arizona officials ask university to stop coronavirus modeling as state eases lockdown restrictions

Arizona officials ask university to stop coronavirus modeling as state eases lockdown restrictionsArizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ (left) give an update on the COVID-19 pandemic response during a press conference at the Arizona Commerce Authority in Phoenix on April 14, 2020.

The Arizona Department of Health Services told a team of university experts working on COVID-19 modeling to "pause" its work, an email from a department leader shows.

The modeling team of about two dozen professors at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona was compiling the most robust public model in Arizona of COVID-19.

The email, first reported by ABC15, came from DHS bureau chief of public health statistics S. Robert Bailey Monday evening shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey announced plans to begin easing social distancing in the coming days.

The state is partly basing its decision on a model from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has not been released to the public.

The universities' model had shown waiting until the end of May to reopen was the only scenario that didn't dramatically increase cases.

In late April, Tim Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at ASU, said the model showed five different scenarios for how the disease could progress in Arizona, depending on how social distancing efforts were relaxed.

The slowest curve, based on if the state reopens at the end of May, is “the only one that doesn't put me immediately back on an exponential growth curve,” Lant said in April. That’s because transmission rates would be lowest at that time, he said.

“I can say, scientifically, no, it's not safe to reopen unless you're planning on, you know, shutting down again after a couple of weeks, and we can help figure out what the appropriate amount of time is to stay open before we shut down,” he said.

Bailey wrote that health department leadership asked the team to "pause" all work on projections and modeling. The department would also be ending access to special data sets the modeling team had been using for their efforts, Bailey said.

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"We realize that you have been, and continue to be working very hard on this effort, so we wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that you won’t expend further time and effort needlessly," Bailey wrote.

The team could be needed again in the late summer or early fall as the influenza season returns, he noted.

Bailey thanked the modeling team and said it "has produced very high-quality results, and these have been very helpful in guiding and informing the decision-making process."

ASU referred media inquiries on the issue to the state health department. UA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an interview on Tuesday, state health director Cara Christ said the modeling team wasn't disbanded.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 and the gradual reopening of the state on April 29, 2020, at the Arizona Commerce Authority Conference Center in Phoenix.

"We just asked them to take a pause for a little bit," Christ said. "We are continuing to get updated FEMA models and we think that that is really representative of where we are. But we did tell them to please stay engaged, because we may need to bring them back in the fall to look at modeling during flu season."

Christ said it should be "pretty easy to just pick up the phone and ask them to come back and help us out" later in the year if needed.

Christ said the department again asked FEMA Tuesday if its model could be released publicly, but the department hasn't received a response yet.

Democratic State Rep. Kelli Butler of Phoenix said on Twitter that the move was "incredibly troubling."

"So, fewer experts and even less transparency as GovDucey reopens #AZ," Butler wrote.

In a blog post on the Arizona Public Health Association's website, the organization's director, Will Humble, wrote that the move was astonishing. He said the model was "very solid work being done by top talent in the field that is very useful for decision-making purposes."

He noted that the email from Bailey didn't cite any specific reason for the work to stop, aside from that it was at the request of the department's leadership.

"Last night’s action to disband the Arizona COVID-19 Modeling Working Group begs the question whether the Modeling Working Group was producing results that were inconsistent with other messaging and decisions being made by the executive branch?" Humble wrote.

Follow Rachel Leingang on Twitter: @rachelleingang.


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