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Arizona health department told university to stop doing COVID-19 modeling

The Arizona Department of Health Services reportedly told a team of academic health experts to "pause" their work on models and projections for the coronavirus outbreak.

S. Robert Bailey, bureau chief of public health statistics for the state agency, wrote in an email to the researchers that his department would no longer be providing access to special data sets that the team had been utilizing for its models, The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday.

Bailey's email was sent shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced Monday that the state would start easing social distancing restrictions.

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"We just asked them to take a pause for a little bit," Cara Christ, interim director of the Arizona health department, told the Republic. "We are continuing to get updated FEMA models and we think that that is really representative of where we are. But we did tell them to please stay engaged, because we may need to bring them back in the fall to look at modeling during flu season."

Arizona is relying on a different model from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has not been released publicly.

Christ said the department has yet to receive a response from FEMA on whether its model could be released publicly.

The modeling team in Arizona consists of about 24 professors from Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. Their models projected that confirmed coronavirus cases would dramatically increase in Arizona unless the state delayed reopening until late May.

Tim Lant, a mathematical epidemiologist at Arizona State, said reopening at the end of May was the only model "that doesn't put me immediately back on an exponential growth curve” because transmission rates would be at their lowest level by that point, the newspaper reported.

A pair of Arizona Democratic lawmakers voiced concern over the state’s decision. Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoMark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego Legal marijuana backers tout potential money for states Leadership matters: President's words and actions show he is unfit to lead our nation MORE (D) urged the universities to ignore the order to stop creating coronavirus models. He also called for the researchers to demand they receive access to special data sets from the state.

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“If the state does not want to work with its premier educational institutions, I urge you to coordinate with the cities of Phoenix and Tucson and other local governments on COVID-19 modeling wherever possible,” Gallego tweeted.

“Anyone else see a real problem here?” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) asked on Twitter.

Arizona Department of Health Services communications director Chris Minnick told The Hill that the agency had established a partnership with the two universities to provide an “additional model for consideration” to complement ones from other sources like FEMA and Harvard.

That additional model was completed on April 20 and the department has since shifted its focus from predictive models to real-time data to assess any trends in COVID-19 cases, Minnick said.

The Arizona Public Health Association, an advocacy group, has pushed back on the state's modeling clampdown.

"Last night’s action to disband the Arizona COVID-19 Modeling Working Group begs the question of whether the Modeling Working Group was discontinued because they had been producing results that were inconsistent with messaging and decisions being made by the executive branch," the organization said in a blog post Tuesday.

Restaurants and coffee shops in Arizona were allowed to resume dine-in services on Monday, so long as they limit occupancy and comply with social distancing guidelines. Barbershops and salons will be permitted to open under modified restrictions starting Friday.

Arizona has confirmed more than 9,300 coronavirus cases and 395 deaths.

Ducey said at a news conference Monday that he was relaxing certain restrictions because of "confidence that we are going in the right direction."

Updated: 5:56 p.m.