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State pausing Arizona modeling team, but experts say they'll continue research

Posted at 9:12 PM, May 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-07 00:23:11-04

The state’s top public health leader put a team of 23 experts working on Arizona’s projections for COVID-19 on pause, but Arizona State University officials say they will continue their research.

A spokesperson for ASU tells ABC15 that they will continue modeling data research on Arizona specifics, “moving forward, ASU will continue to perform its COVID-19 research, and will make these updates publicly available during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

The 23-member team of experts from Arizona universities was told to stop work on Monday, hours after the governor’s press conference.

RELATED: Arizona state health department tells modeling team to stop work

ABC15 spoke with one of those modeling experts on the team on Monday before the state requested them to pause.

Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor at the University of Arizona said on Monday, “have we hit the peak? Probably not.”

The modeling teams have projected that the peak for Arizona will not be until the end of May. However, state leaders have said they have found other projections, like the federal model, are most realistic.

So, how could the governor say it was safe to open up Arizona?

A look at the total numbers of new cases and other hospital data on the Arizona Department of Health Services website seems to conflict with the governor’s “downward trend.”

The state’s former public health director Will Humble tells ABC15 that these experts were volunteering their time -- and, they’re the best.

“If I was a public official and I had the opportunity to get the best modelers in the whole state work together on a document and get me that product for free, and it would help me put the data into context, so that I could make better decisions, I would take that offer any day of the week,” Humble said.

The governor’s office told ABC15 in a statement on Wednesday that they did not make the decision, “Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health expert,” wrote a spokesperson, “she made the decision after reviewing all the data.”

The state says they will continue to use the model developed by FEMA and CDC, as it ensures our hospitals have the capacity for any situation, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said.

The FEMA model that has been out there for two weeks has not been released publicly as the state says they are waiting for approval from FEMA.

“I think that anyone with any level of common sense understands that this is a value,” said State Representative Isela Blanc.

The Democratic lawmaker said politics out of this, this was free resources to the state with 23 experts in their field.

When asked if she reached out to the governor’s office about the move, “I mean, I think our best way of reaching out to the governor’s office these days is hoping that he will read our tweets, lets be real,” she replied, “I think he is listening to, well, I’d say a panel of experts, but that seems to be incorrect at this time.”

On Wednesday, ADHS released a statement,

“We appreciate the work of the talented professionals who assisted our team of public health professionals and experienced epidemiologists in developing a state model. The department established the partnership to provide an additional model for consideration. This model was completed on April 20, 2020.

With months of data now available, we have shifted our primary focus from predictive models to using all of our real-time, Arizona specific data to assess the health of our healthcare system and evaluate the trend of our cases to make decisions that are best for Arizona. This and other data can be found on our COVID-19 data dashboard, which recently received an A+ for data quality by COVID Tracking.

While the models may try to predict what lies ahead, they are simply predictions. As we’ve noted previously, these models differ wildly with one another, and some of the projections vastly differ from the data received through observing actual cases.

In responding to COVID-19, the department has looked to a variety of different models, including one developed within the agency using Arizona-specific population data and modeling formulas from Harvard, the IHME model developed by the University of Washington, the model developed in partnership with Arizona universities, and a model developed by FEMA in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A breakdown of all of the models can be found in our blog discussing Arizona Specific COVID-19 Models and Projections.

While many of the current models show that Arizona’s capacity is sufficient to meet the projected need for hospital beds and ventilators, in order to protect Arizonans, we continue to prepare for a worst-case scenario to ensure all Arizonans have access to quality care and treatment.”