The scientists’ model had predicted that beginning to reopen businesses in Arizona earlier than late May would cause coronavirus cases to dramatically increase.
Days after the Arizona Department of Health Services disbanded a team of university scientists who were working on COVID-19 models, agency officials reversed course Thursday and said they would continue an “ongoing partnership” with the team.
“Understanding the demands on their time, we let them know that we were putting the modeling project on pause until we could bring them back to assist with modeling COVID-19 resource requirements during the influenza season,” ADHS spokesman Chris Minnick said in a statement to The Arizona Republic. “Since then, the Universities and team members have expressed a willingness to continue doing this work. We are grateful for their dedication and we look forward to an ongoing partnership.”
A group of Arizona State University scientists say they will continue their work on coronavirus modeling, despite the state disbanding a volunteer team of university experts this week.
“Moving forward, ASU will continue to perform its COVID-19 research, and will make these updates publicly available during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the university said in a statement to ABC 15.
A member of the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) emailed the 23-person team, which also included University of Arizona scientists, earlier this week and told them the state would be pausing modeling work. The scientists also lost access to special data sets the state provided them for their work.
Instead, the state says it will look to Federal Emergency Management Agency models that are not available to the public.
According to The Arizona Republic, the university’s model had shown that waiting to begin reopening until the end of May was the only scenario in which the number of coronavirus cases didn’t dramatically increase. It is unclear if the UArizona scientists plan to continue the modeling project.
Arizona’s numbers continued to rise Thursday, with cases reaching 9,945 and a total of 450 deaths. That was 238 new cases from Wednesday and 24 new deaths.
Multiple figures have accused the state of making a decision to rely on models that better line up with Gov. Doug Ducey’s plans to begin reopening businesses this week. President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, visited the state Tuesday and pressured states to begin reopening their economies despite public health experts saying cases and deaths will increase.
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Dr. Joe Gerald, a UArizona member of the modeling team, told the Arizona Capitol Times on Wednesday that he believes the state’s decision was politically motivated.
He said the team disagreed with Ducey’s decision to allow retail stores, barbershops, and salons to open to customers as early as Friday, with restaurant dining rooms allowed to open Monday.
“We know more people are going to get sick and more people are going to die. Maybe that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make,” Gerald said.
Former ADHS Director Will Humble also told the newspaper he was suspect of the motivations behind the move.
“Why would you not ask for that kind of help, recognizing that the output that you get is one of the factors that you’ll take into consideration as an elected official to make your decisions?” he said. “It doesn’t make intuitive sense but politically, it makes sense.”
On Wednesday, Rep. Ruben Gallego had called for the university scientists to continue their work despite having the team broken up. Once ASU announced plans to continue, he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema applauded them. Sinema said she found the state’s decision “concerning and disappointing.”
A spokesman for the governor’s office said it was ADHS that made the decision to disband the team, and Ducey had no part in it.
“If a political decision were to be made, the decision would be to not do this, because why would you want stories about it?” Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s chief of staff, told the Arizona Capitol Times. “But they’re making decisions based on public health and what they need and data.”
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State leaders have also spoken out against ADHS for the move. Rep. Isela Blanc accused Ducey of scapegoating the health department. Rep. Athena Salman said disbanding the modeling team was “the governor’s reckless attempt to keep us in the dark.”
But ADHS has continued to defend itself, releasing a statement Wednesday saying the agency had put the team together to create a model for the state’s consideration, and that model was completed April 20.
“With months of data now available, we have shifted our primary focus from predictive models to using all of our real-time, Arizona specific data to assess the health of our healthcare system and evaluate the trend of our cases to make decisions that are best for Arizona,” the statement read.
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