“We’ve been asked by Department leadership to ‘pause’ all current work on projections and modeling,” Steven Bailey, the bureau chief for public health statistics at the Arizona Department of Health Services, wrote to the modeling team, composed of professionals from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, according to email correspondence reviewed by The Washington Post.
The move to sideline academic experts in the middle of the pandemic reflects growing friction between plans to resume economic activity and the analysis of epidemiologists that underscores the dangers of rolling back restrictions. Officials in Arizona said they would rely on “real-time” information, as well as modeling conducted by federal agencies, which is not released publicly.
During his visit to Arizona on Tuesday, Trump pressed states to pursue aggressive reopening strategies even as he acknowledged “some people will be affected badly.” Governors from Georgia to Iowa have stepped ahead of the recommendations of doctors and epidemiologists in their states, beginning phased reopenings before they met the administration’s nonbinding guidelines. Recent polling suggests they have done so against the wishes of most Americans, who support sweeping precautions to slow the spread of the virus.
But experts said Arizona’s dismissal of academics, whose analysis seems at odds with the state’s approach, marked an alarming turn against data-informed decision-making.
“The approach seems to be, ‘Shoot the messenger — and quick,’ ” said Josiah D. Rich, an epidemiologist at Brown University.
The Arizona health department was pulling back “the special data sets which have been shared under this public health emergency effort,” according to the Monday email from Bailey, which was first reported by an ABC affiliate in Phoenix.
The decision represented an abrupt turnaround from the state’s request for expert input about six weeks ago, when Bailey vowed the modelers would have “full, unfettered access to confidential . . . data from the Department.”
“This is a situation that is unprecedented in living memory, and it is going to become rapidly more dire in the coming days,” he wrote in previously unreported correspondence. “I cannot, therefore, overemphasize the importance of what we are requesting here.”
The move also troubled some federal lawmakers. “We can’t just remove scientific data and bury facts when it contradicts an agenda or narrative,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.).
Will Humble, a former Arizona health director, said he was concerned by the timing of the abrupt suspension of the modeling work — hours after Ducey had announced plans to ease restrictions on restaurants and barbershops, among other retailers.
Several members of the modeling group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about professional retribution, said the work was halted without advance notice. One said the timing of the president’s visit to the state was suspicious.
“The optics don’t look good,” the academic said.
Reached by phone, Bailey, the email’s author, declined to comment. He wrote in his Monday email that the partnership with the academics, who were volunteering their time, might resume with the onset of flu season later in the year.
Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor, said the department’s determination “had nothing to do with” the president’s travel to Arizona, or the governor’s Monday announcement about new steps in the state’s gradual reopening. He said the decision was made by the state’s health director, Cara Christ, “after reviewing all of the data.”
Going forward, Arizona will use modeling developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that “ensures our hospitals have capacity for any situation,” Ptak said.
But Humble said the state is eluding accountability by relying on nonpublic modeling. The academic partnership yielded public reports, the most recent of which predicted that the state’s peak of cases would not arrive before mid-May.
Ptak said the state is working to see if Arizona-specific projections can be made public.
“Good practice is always to use multiple models and multiple inputs,” said Elizabeth Carlton, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. “A smart state program will consult a lot of different data sources.”
Efforts in other states to selectively interpret and display coronavirus cases to suit political ends are also raising concerns among epidemiologists.
Iowa experts who presented the state with models saying it was too early to reopen said they were ignored.
“My concern is that the [Iowa Department of Public Health] — they’ve been saying the curve has been declining for a month now and it never really has,” said Eli Perencevich, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and a member of the team preparing modeling for state health officials.
The way the state is counting cases, he said, “it’s always going to look like it’s going down.”
Georgia and Iowa are among more than a dozen states marking new coronavirus cases primarily by the date of symptom onset, rather than when a test came back positive — the effect of which is to lower current case counts.
Nadia Abuelezam, of Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing, said charting cases by date of symptom onset “shifts all of the positive tests back one or two weeks” because people rarely get tested right away.
“If those numbers are trending down because we’re displacing cases backward, I think that could have significant ramifications,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Iowa Health Department did not return a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the Georgia Health Department acknowledged a lag in the data but noted all cases are still counted, just not the day they are reported.
“How much is our data helping inform decisions?” asked Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. “I think it’s been answered.”