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Officials halt work by ASU COVID-19 modeling team

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Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ (left) update on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a conference released at the Arizona Commerce Authority in Phoenix on April 14, 2020. (Photo: Rob Schumacher / The Republic)

The Arizona Department of Health Services has told a team of academic experts working on COVID-19 modeling to “suspend” its work, says an email from a department head.

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

The email, from the head of the DHS public health statistics office, S. Robert Bailey, arrived Monday evening after Governor Doug Ducey announced plans to begin reducing social distance in the coming days.

ABC15 first reported that the email interrupted the work of the modellers.

Rather, the state relies on a model of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This model has not been made public.

The university model had shown that reopening at the end of May was the only scenario that did not significantly increase cases.

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

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

“I can say, scientifically, no, it’s not safe to reopen unless you plan on, you know, closing again after a few weeks, and we can help you determine the appropriate timeframe to stay open before we do let’s close, “he said.

Bailey wrote that the management of the health department had asked the team to “suspend” all work on the projections and modeling. The ministry will also end access to special datasets that the modeling team used for its efforts, said Bailey.

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“We realize you have been, and continue to work very hard on this effort, so we wanted to let you know as soon as possible so that you don’t waste any more time and effort unnecessarily,” wrote Bailey.

The team may be needed again in late summer or early fall after the flu season returns, he noted.

Bailey thanked the modeling team and said that it “produced very high quality results, which were very helpful in guiding and informing the decision making process. “

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

In an interview on Tuesday, director of public health, Cara Christ, said that the modeling team was not disbanded.

“We just asked them to take a break,” said Christ. “We continue to get updated FEMA models and we think this is really representative of our situation. But we have told them to stay engaged, because we may have to bring them back in the fall to study modeling during the flu season. . ”

Christ said it should be “easy enough to just pick up the phone and ask them to come back and help us” later in the year if necessary.

Christ said the department asked FEMA again on Tuesday if its model could be released, but the department has yet to receive a response.

Democratic State official Kelli Butler of Phoenix said on Twitter that the decision was “extremely disturbing.”

“So less experts and even less transparency with the reopening of GovDucey #AZ,” Butler wrote.

In a blog post on the Arizona Public Health Association website, organization director Will Humble wrote that the move was astonishing. He said the model was “very solid work done by the best talent in the field which is very useful for decision making.” “

He noted that Bailey’s email did not mention any specific reason for the work to stop, other than at the request of the department’s management.

“Last night’s action to dissolve the Arizona COVID-19 modeling working group raises the question of whether the modeling working group was producing results inconsistent with other messages and decisions made by the executive? Humble wrote.

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Contact reporter Rachel Leingang by email at [email protected] or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find it on Twitter and Facebook.

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