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After outcry, Arizona restores partnership with team projecting increased coronavirus cases

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) listens as President Trump speaks during a tour of a Honeywell International plant that manufactures personal protective equipment in Phoenix on Tuesday.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) listens as President Trump speaks during a tour of a Honeywell International plant that manufactures personal protective equipment in Phoenix on Tuesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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Arizona reversed course on Thursday and resumed a partnership with epidemiologists whose projections suggest the state may be moving too rapidly to reopen businesses as cases of the novel coronavirus mount.

The turnaround, after a public outcry, marked the latest chapter in a skirmish over data and public policy that reflects the anguished national debate over how to incorporate scientific expertise to protect both lives and livelihoods during a pandemic that has killed more than 75,000 Americans and thrown 33 million out of work.

Cara Christ, the state’s health director, told the academic experts in an email Thursday that she had halted their work “out of respect to the demands on your time.”

“However, given your willingness to continue, we would be grateful for the ongoing partnership,” she wrote in correspondence reviewed by The Washington Post. “I have instructed my team to ensure you have continued access to the data and to be available to answer any questions.”

That was welcome news for the epidemiologists and statisticians who had developed the projections.

“We are really looking forward to resuming our work,” said Joe Gerald, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and one of the participants from his school and Arizona State University.

The team, initially assembled in March, received word Monday from a statistics chief at the Arizona Department of Health Services that their work was being halted, and that access to the confidential data underpinning their analysis was revoked.

The abrupt notice came hours after the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, had accelerated plans to reopen Arizona — saying he would ease restrictions on restaurants, among other businesses — on the eve of President Trump’s visit to the state.

Details of Ducey’s phased reopening appear to clash with the predictions of the academic experts, who expect the state’s peak of cases to arrive in mid-May. The governor’s plans also are at odds with nonbinding White House guidelines that recommend states delay reopening most nonessential businesses until they have seen a downward trajectory of cases over a 14-day period.

The statistics chief, Steven Bailey, wrote in his email that the partnership might resume with the onset of flu season, while a spokesman for the governor denied that the decision to halt the modeling was connected to the state’s gradual reopening.

Where Americans are still staying at home the most

But the move to sideline academic professionals alarmed experts nationally, and drew rebukes from Democratic lawmakers.

“The governor’s choice to disregard the science that should be the basis of Arizona public health policies — and the White House’s guidelines for reopening — is concerning and disappointing,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) told The Post on Wednesday.

A Ducey spokesman, Patrick Ptak, said the initial decision had been made by Christ, the health director, “after reviewing all of the data.”

Chris Minnick, a spokesman for the health department, said the work had been suspended because the task had been completed. “Our initial request for the team was to produce the model that they delivered on April 20,” he said.

But initial correspondence from the health department stated the modeling “will need to be continuously updated and adjusted as new data comes in.”

On Thursday, the university experts heard directly from Christ. “Thank you for helping us ensure the health and wellness for all Arizonans, we appreciate you!” she wrote.

Gerald, the University of Arizona professor, said the latest email brought “extremely welcome news.”

He and other team members had indicated earlier they would seek to continue their work, but the lack of data access created barriers, Gerald said. In addition to modeling the spread of the virus, the academics were involved in making projections for hospital demand and equipment use.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who had assailed the earlier move to end the analysis, praised the state’s decision to resume the partnership.

“Now, we must ensure the modeling team’s research and findings are actually reflected in the governor’s covid-19 strategy,” she said.