New public records unveil what experts told Arizona leaders about pandemic

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Posted at 3:26 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 21:24:28-04

PHOENIX — Arizona has hit more than 17,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, more than a year after the virus began spreading in our state.

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ABC15 has new insight into what was being said among health officials and public health experts, and what was being said publicly during part of this pandemic.

After nearly five months, a public records request has been fulfilled by the Arizona Department of Health Services that shows discussions between the modeling team made up of top researchers in Arizona and health officials who work for the state.

The emails help detail timelines, and show what was and was not said publicly as Arizona approached the summer surge.

The records obtained were notes from internal meetings with the modeling team and health employees with ADHS.

Back in May, the modeling team made national headlines after they were quietly fired by ADHS officials, before being reinstated later.

The modeling group is made up of more than 20 Arizona university researchers, as well as experts in statistics, public health, projective models, and economics.

ADHS eventually reversed its decision, as a spokesman said the agency was "pleased with the model" and only disbanded the team due to concerns about "demands on their time."

The modeling team met nearly every week throughout the pandemic. The first meeting starting at the end of March where there was an agenda, and meeting notes. After the first two meetings, the agendas and notes stop.

A spokesperson for ADHS said the weekly calls are informal and open discussions, and that there are no notes, minutes, or agendas beyond the first meetings.

The state was able to provide a dozen emails to ABC15 in which representatives shared attachments and emails from participants on those internal meetings.

In early May and in June, meeting notes detail how an ASU professor was part of the meeting for economic projections. The concern brought forward was unemployment rates that would lead to a "significant upwards enrollment pressure on AHCCS."

On May 21, 2020 notes written by an ADHS employee said, “also we talked more extensively about the lag between unemployment, loss of healthcare coverage and access to healthcare, and a rise in applications for public insurance.”

This would mean that the state would have to pay for more people.

“We seem to be headed into a time where increasing lack of health coverage and increasing hospitalizations may converge into a serious problem,” according to notes written by an ADHS health employee on June 4, 2020.

Arizona COVID-19 data

On May 15, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey ended his stay-at-home order, and soon after, the state would slowly start to see an increase in cases.

Nearly three weeks later, in a meeting on June 4 with ADHS officials and the modeling team it was pointed out that numerous data points would show increasing trends since May 11, four days before that stay-at-home order ended.

However, the group discussed how there was volatility in the numbers because of five reasons: the reopening from May 15, Memorial Day weekend activities, recent and continuing protests, the testing surge, and the arrival of hot weather and behavioral changes.

Then a week later, on June 11, the modeling group talked about being "on a trajectory to reach the virtual limits of hospital ICU capacity within the next 10 days."

However, that ADHS employee who took notes said their feeling was that the modelers were being too cautious in their projections, “We know that what we see today reflects infection activity from 10 days to two weeks in the past. So whatever happens in the next 10 days, the die has already been cast and nothing we do now could modify it.”

The same email would state that the argument about cases increasing because of testing volume is present, but it was noted as "weak."

June 11 is when concerns were made forward about hospital capacity, and the rate of infection, however, it would be 18 days until the governor made a decision to close businesses like bars, gyms and tubing.

Then in early July, the modeling team told ADHS employees that the projections from three weeks earlier proved reasonably true, and the newly updated models also match "current and past data."

A bullet point in that July 2, 2020 meeting talked about Arizona’s Infection Fatality Ratio and how it’s estimated at 0.0064, or 0.64%, “That is higher than CDC estimates for the US using the same method, which are at 0.004 or 0.4%.”

Those same notes would say, “there is not a lot of good news right now.”

After that July 2 meeting, ABC15 only received documents for July 24, and then after August 20 they stopped completely.

A member of that modeling team tells ABC15 that Dr. Cara Christ was not a part of those meetings, so it is unclear what she was told.

“It’s obviously being passed along second, third hand to Dr. Christ,” said Wendy Smith Reeve, the state’s former director of emergency management. "It’s important that you be present for those conversations, number one. Number two, if you have other questions, then you need to gain clarification from those modelers that were contributing to that product.”

Smith Reeve said leaders should not just be listening to the ADHS team. "It is all of these teams, we need to have that diversity in dialogue and perspective, and then find out where the nexus point is, and that's the direction you go.”

Arizona has now hit more than 17,000 deaths as of Wednesday, but state leaders have not acknowledged if any deaths could have been prevented.

Back in January, ABC15 did speak one-on-one with one of those modeling researchers who contributed to the models, and he emphasized that more could have been done. "There’s no question that many Arizonans were infected and died, those infections and deaths could have been prevented.”

A spokesperson for ADHS said that the state did receive, and review, information shared by the university modeling group.

“We appreciate their efforts, although ADHS has not always agreed with their predictions or recommendations, which as you know are made public by the individual groups,” an email read. “ADHS has its own team of medical and public health experts, including Dr. Christ. This team provides information and advice that guides the state’s COVID-19 response. Governor Ducey and Dr. Christ have worked together closely throughout the pandemic.”