Researcher: decision to ax virus modeling group political

Andrew Nicla//May 6, 2020

Researcher: decision to ax virus modeling group political

Andrew Nicla//May 6, 2020

Gov. Doug Ducey answers questions Tuesday about his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Arizona and about when a decision will be made about removing some restrictions. With him is state Health Director Cara Christ. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Gov. Doug Ducey answers questions April about his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Arizona and about when a decision will be made about removing some restrictions. With him is state Health Director Cara Christ. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

A public health expert who was part of a group that conducted modeling on the spread of coronavirus said Wednesday the state’s decision to abruptly end the group’s work was politically motivated and a half-baked attempt to justify reopening the state as soon as possible. 

Dr. Joe Gerald, director of Public Health Policy and Management at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, said Gov. Doug Ducey cited unreliable data during his May 4 press conference to announce loosening his stay-at-home order.  

A key piece of Ducey’s justification, Gerald said, relied on syndromic surveillance of flu-like and COVID-like illnesses, data that is self-reported, not validated and unreliable. 

Arizona Department of Health Services chief of health statistics, S. Robert Bailey, informed the Projections Modeling Team, a volunteer group of researchers overseen by Arizona State University, on Monday the department was going to “pause” the group’s work. 

Bailey did not provide the group a reason for the sudden change. 

Gerald said he had no question that the decision came from the Governor’s Office and Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ. The researcher suspects Ducey may be falling in line with President Donald Trump, who visited Arizona Tuesday and recently discontinued the White House coronavirus task force.

Although the modeling produced by the group was just one factor in the state’s decision-making, Gerald said its absence will affect how informed the state’s decisions related to COVID-19 are..

 “It really comes down to, is the executive branch willing to listen to us public health professionals?” Gerald said.

Gerald said the group thinks the Governor’s Office is lifting restrictions too quickly and the moves are short-sighted, if the ultimate goal is leading Arizona down a path of fewer cases and deaths. 

“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.

Even if the justification is to restart the economy, Gerald said public opinion suggests people aren’t as enthusiastic about that if there are too many unintended consequences attached. 

While the justification from Ducey and Christ is that the state can handle any surge in cases with available hospital capacity, that may also be misleading, Gerald said, as it doesn’t fully account for adequate staffing and the workload the average health care worker is facing and would face should another surge come.

“I’m not sure enough attention has been given to the human factors… How well prepared are our health care workers to manage these patients over the long term?” Gerald said.

Ducey’s chief of staff,  Daniel Scarpinato, said that the governor didn’t order the “pause” in the team’s work, didn’t receive a heads-up that it was coming and said that if it were a political decision, it would be a pretty poor one.

“It’s a DHS public health decision that they made – we didn’t make it – we obviously support their decisions because they’re the experts,” he said. “We don’t micromanage every decision made by [Christ’s] team at DHS.”

Scarpinato said that the state has a lot of models that it can call on, and “the one thing they all have in common, is that they were all wrong. Wildly.” 

He said now that the state has eight weeks of data, it doesn’t need to rely as heavily on models, and the one it is relying on – the FEMA-produced model that hasn’t been released to the public – has the most accurate data. 

“The healthcare experts are using the FEMA model and the other models, but the bottom line is the models are just models,” he said.

The modelers were among the few people who were cued in to government data but not beholden to the governor, like Christ, who serves at the pleasure of the governor. But Scarpinato said the fact that they didn’t agree with Ducey’s plans to reopen the economy had nothing to do with their work being canceled.

“If a political decision were to be made, the decision would be to not do this, because why would you want stories about it? But they’re making decisions based on public health and what they need and data,” he said. 

When DHS set up the agreement with university scientists on March 15, Bailey stressed the importance of the modeling work and alluded that the team would be part of a continued effort.

“This is a situation that is unprecedented in living memory, and it is going to become rapidly more dire in the coming days,” Bailey wrote.

On Tuesday, he sent a much briefer email telling the volunteer group that DHS leadership asked to stop work on projections and modeling.

“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 said. 

However, Bailey added there “is a distinct possibility” that they could be called on again in the summer or early fall during influenza season. Bailey did not return a request for comment in time for publication.

Former DHS Director Will Humble was equally confused by the decision to end the group’s work, saying it doesn’t make sense from a public health standpoint, but it makes perfect sense from a political standpoint. The labor the DHS was getting was free and unmatched in terms of detail and local expertise, and to fire them begs the question if it was because their message didn’t match up with Ducey’s push to reopen the economy.

“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?” Humble said. “It doesn’t make intuitive sense but politically, it makes sense.” 

Joe Caspermeyer, an Arizona State University spokesman said the university will keep doing the work it contributed to the model, but will share it publicly rather than with the defunct working group. The modeling team was doing its work before becoming part of the DHS working group and will continue that work, which will include updated case projections, hospitalizations, ICU and ventilator usage and deaths, Caspermeyer said.

 Hank Stephenson, editor of The Yellow Sheet Report, contributed to this report.