Ducey: Don't Blame Me for 'Firing' Coronavirus Modeling Scientists

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, seen here at the May 5 meeting with Trump, refuted the idea that he had anything to do with disbanding a team of university modeling scientists.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, seen here at the May 5 meeting with Trump, refuted the idea that he had anything to do with disbanding a team of university modeling scientists. White House
Did Arizona Governor Doug Ducey order the state Department of Health Services to fire the state's top coronavirus modeling scientists because he didn't like the facts they had compiled?

Yes, according to several media outlets, including Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts, who wrote a piece on May 6 headlined: "Gov. Doug Ducey fires the scientists who warn he's making a mistake by reopening Arizona."

And yes, according to Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who tweeted the same day: "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 opening - is concerning and disappointing."

But the answer is "no," if you ask Ducey.

His office said on May 7 — before the apparent reversal of the "firing" of the modeling scientists — that DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ was the one who made the decision.

The governor's office also seemed to blame the Arizona Republic for reporting how different coronavirus models can be. When asked whether the governor or any staff member or advisor told Dr. Christ she should stop the modeling work of about two dozen Arizona university scientists, here's what the office said:

"The Arizona Republic looked into all the modeling [link in original email] that was done and found them to be widely divergent and constantly changing," said Ducey's spokesperson Patrick Ptak. "These models were used to help us plan through April and into May. We’ve now got two months of on-the-ground data, the model we have found to be most reliable is the FEMA model. Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, is an infectious disease epidemiologist. She made the decision after reviewing all the data."

Melissa Blasius, a Channel 15 (KNXV-TV) reporter who worked at the DHS for seven months as director of communications, broke the bombshell story on Tuesday about a letter that she had somehow obtained from the health agency to the modeling team.

In the letter, Steven "Rob" Bailey, a DHS bureau chief, tells the team the DHS has decided to "pause" their volunteer work creating predictive models unless they were needed in the fall, and that DHS would also pull back "data sets" it had given the team. As Blasius noted, the leaked letter was dated Monday, May 4, just hours after Ducey announced an accelerated opening of restaurants and hair salons.

A DHS spokesperson told Blasius that the agency was "looking at several national models and have determined that FEMA is the most accurate to help us develop and implement public health interventions to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak."

The letter and decision by Ducey also came one day before Trump's planned visit to a Phoenix mask factory (where the president declined to wear a mask) and meeting with Native American leaders.

As MSNBC's Rachel Maddow put it on May 6, Trump has been pushing governors like Ducey to hurry their reopenings, and then "the Ducey administration found a new model for the epidemic in their state that they've decided they really like, and it tells them much happier things."

But according to Ducey, this is not the way it happened. The decision was Dr. Christ's, who "continues to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and look at all the data available," Ptak said.

The DHS is trying to get past the debacle following criticism from social media users, media pundits, and politicians like Sinema. It made an announcement on May 7 that appeared to reverse what Ducey's office said was Christ's decision.

"Earlier today we communicated with the members of the University modeling team and we’re pleased to announce an ongoing partnership to continue providing models," the DHS statement said. "Our initial request for the team was to produce the model that they delivered on April 20th. We were very pleased with the model they provided. Understanding the demands on their time, we let them know that we were putting the modeling project on pause until we could bring them back to assist with modeling COVID-19 resource requirements during the influenza season. 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."

DHS added that the ongoing partnership would include not pulling back the "special data sets" that the state had shared.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.