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Arizona reverses call to make state university experts stop work modeling the coronavirus outbreak

Arizona reverses call to make state university experts stop work modeling the coronavirus outbreak

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series
Coronavirus, COVID 19

A nurse at a drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing station, set up by the University of Washington Medical Center, holds a bag containing a swab used to take a sample from the nose of a person in their car, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Seattle.

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

“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.

The state’s reversal will allow him 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.

In their statement, AZDHS said they communicated with the modeling team on Thursday, and told them "we were very pleased with the model they provided" that was delivered on 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 didn’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 their work in an email on Monday, a move one UA professor involved with the project admitted took him 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,” said Gerald, an associate professor with the UA’s Zuckerman College of Public Health. “I felt like we were providing actionable counseling and evidence.”

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 of Health Services, he said, adding that he stood ready to "start up again tomorrow or continue helping them in other ways.”

The decision led to an outpouring of criticism from a number of elected officials, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, of Tucson, and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, all of whom are Democrats, while also garnering headlines in the Washington Post and New York Times, and a segment on the Rachel Maddow Show.

"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 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.”

“During the pandemic, Arizona State University has conducted modeling data research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Arizona. In April, ASU, along with researchers from UA, were contacted by ADHS to form an ADHS Modeling Working Group that provided estimates on the number of COVID-19 cases, hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators and economic impact assessments. ASU’s was one of several public health models ADHS used for guidance on its public health decisions. With the Governor’s announcement of updated Arizona COVID-19 guidelines on May 4th, the working group was notified by ADHS to discontinue its services until the fall," the statement Wednesday said.

It will be relatively easy to get back to work, Gerald said. The team will regain access to a valuable stream of data.

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

The move 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 University of Arizona’s 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 atjsayers1@tucson.comor 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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