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After reversal, UA professor 'excited' to get back to Arizona's coronavirus modeling
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After reversal, UA professor 'excited' to get back to Arizona's coronavirus modeling

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

State Health Director Cara Christ speaks at a news conference last month with Gov. Doug Ducey by her side. The state announced Thursday that it will continue its partnership with university experts who are providing predictions on COVID-19.

In response to growing criticism over a decision to pause the work of an Arizona team modeling the spread of the coronavirus, the state Department of Health Services announced Thursday that it has established “an ongoing partnership” with those university experts to continue providing their predictions.

“I’m pretty excited,” said Dr. Joe Gerald, who is a member of the modeling team and an associate professor with the UA’s Zuckerman College of Public Health.

UPDATES: Tucson area coronavirus developments, June 3: Here's what we know

The state’s reversal will allow Gerald and his colleagues to provide state leaders with useful and actionable information during the pandemic, he said. It’s the type of information that can help leaders decide when and how to reopen the state.

The health department said it communicated with members of the modeling team Thursday, telling them “we were very pleased with the model they provided” that was delivered April 20.

“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,” the statement said. “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.”

The decision to pause the group’s work came as Gov. Doug Ducey had moved to ease social distancing restrictions across the state despite the professors’ model that showed reopening at the end of May was the only scenario that wouldn’t dramatically increase COVID-19 cases.

The department had told the group of university experts, which included at least four members from the University of Arizona, that it was pausing its work in an email on Monday, a move that took Gerald by surprise.

“I felt like our group was doing some good work, that we were beginning to make progress on each of the pieces of the puzzle,” Gerald said in a interview on Wednesday. “I felt like we were providing actionable counseling and evidence.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services had made a lot of progress toward doing the team’s work in house, but Gerald said he felt that university researchers, like himself, were still contributing in an important way.

While Gerald said he was disappointed the state had told the modeling team to stop working, he still has a good working relationship with the Arizona department, adding that he stood ready to “start up again tomorrow or continue helping them in other ways.” The initial decision led to an outpouring of criticism from a number of elected officials — including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Tucson and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, all Democrats — while also garnering national newspaper and television headlines.

“Gov. Ducey should not be making decisions based on his political agenda of reopening,” Romero said during a segment on ABC News on Thursday.

“There will be more suffering and lives lost in Arizona if we do not operate on a science-based strategy. The governor’s rush to reopen the state puts more lives at risk, it’s not the time to halt research and data modeling from our university health experts who are working to better understand COVID-19 in Arizona. We can’t just remove scientific data and bury facts when it contradicts an agenda or narrative; this will extend and worsen an already detrimental crisis,” Kirkpatrick said on Twitter.

An Arizona State University spokesman had also said in a statement Wednesday that the professors “will continue to perform its COVID-19 research, and will make these updates publicly available during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Gerald had also planned on continuing his research while the modeling team’s work was paused, but he’d probably only be able to do 80% of it, he said.

Many national models are limited to using county or metropolitan data to analyze the pandemic in Arizona, Gerald said. But he and his colleagues were working on drilling down into smaller geographic areas when the state paused their work. They were hoping to identify “outbreak hot spots,” he said. And they wanted to build an algorithm “to more efficiently target our public health response.”

It will be relatively easy to get back to work, Gerald said.

“Maybe it’s not quite as easy as flipping a switch and turning it back on. The pause was short enough that we should be back up and running very quickly.”

The move to reboot the team’s work was championed by local experts.

“It’s really great to hear that the modeling efforts are back on track,” said Michael Worobey, an infectious disease expert who heads the UA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Despite talk of reaching a peak in cases, the new coronavirus is not going away anytime soon, he said. “We’re still in the early days of this pandemic and we have a long way to go before enough people have been infected that the pandemic will trail off.”

“Modeling … is still a really crucial part of the fight against this pathogen,” he said.

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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Alex has been with the Star since June 2019. He previously wrote about the environment for the Arizona Republic and he's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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