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Health department resumes work with COVID-19 modeling team

After several days of criticism and scrutiny over its decision to part ways with a group of experts at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona that was forecasting possible outcomes of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Arizona Department of Health Services has resumed its partnership with the modeling team.

The department informed members of the team that it was directing them to "pause" their work on May 4. The end of the partnership was also the end of the modeling team's access to non-public data that ADHS had been providing.

In the days since then, the decision was met with widespread criticism, and the agency and Gov. Doug Ducey made national news, including in the Washington Post, Salon, Yahoo! News and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show.

The email informing the team that the partnership was over was sent shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he was lifting several restrictions he'd imposed as part of his stay-at-home order, allowing restaurants to resume dine-in service and permitting barbers and salons to reopen their doors. That decision followed his announcement last week that non-essential retail businesses could re-open.

One member of the team, Dr. Joe Gerald, the director of public health policy and management at the University of Arizona's College of Public Health, blasted the decision. He told the Arizona Capitol Times that the decision was politically motivated and intended to justify Ducey's lifting of restrictions, which Gerald said was based on unreliable data.

A spokesman for ADHS said the agency informed members of the modeling team on Thursday that it would continue their partnership.

The agency said the decision to halt its partnership with the team was made out of concern for the amount of the team members' time it was taking up. It said it planned to resume work with the team later in the year, when the next flu season begins.

"Since then, the Universities and team members have expressed a willingness to continue doing this work. We are grateful for their dedication and we look forward to an ongoing partnership," the agency said.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor, said Ducey wasn't involved in the initial decision to halt ADHS's work with the modeling team. But he and the agency subsequently discussed the issue and agreed that continuing the partnership was the right move, he said.

"We support the decision by ADHS and are glad they found a way to continue partnering with our universities," Ptak said.

The COVID-19 modeling team's work contradicted Ducey's insistence that it was safe to begin reopening businesses at the end of the week that had been ordered closed March 30. In April, it projected that infections would peak around May 15. Tim Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at Arizona State University, told The Arizona Republic that reopening the state in late May was the only one of five scenarios the team modeled that wouldn't substantially increase coronavirus infections.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Pool photo by Mark Henle/Arizona Republic

Dr. Cara Christ answers a question, April 7, 2020, during a COVID-19 news conference at the Arizona Commerce Authority Conference Center in Phoenix.