PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Gov. Doug Ducey ignored warnings from a COVID-19 modeling group that tracked and predicted the course of the pandemic during the last year. That claim comes from one of the group leaders who say thousands of deaths could have been prevented.
Shortly after the pandemic began, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University assembled teams of scientists. Reporter Kris Pickel has been in ongoing contact with a number of the modeling group members who expressed their frustration as COVID-19 cases and deaths, they believe could have been prevented, climbed. Several of the members asked to remain anonymous due to their positions and fear of retaliation.
The group meets virtually once a week with representatives from the Arizona Department of Health Services taking notes. To confirm what information from the scientists is documented, Pickel filed a public records request for the notes. After months of excuses, delays, and wrong documents being sent, ADHS handed over the notes, but only after attorney Dan Barr with the First Amendment Coalition warned legal action would be taken if the proper documents were not produced. The notes confirm the information the modeling group provided, the timing, and that information was being accurately documented despite the group's recommendations on steps to slow the transmission not being reflected in Gov. Ducey's policies.
Dr. Joe Gerald is an associate professor and program director for Public Health Policy & Management. He's also the team leader in the modeling group for the University of Arizona. Dr. Gerald says the governor did not pay attention to their forecasts and chose to protect Arizona's economic livelihood over protecting the lives of Arizonans.
"He didn't walk out into the street and give somebody COVID and then have them pass away. But certainly, his decisions led to more cases than otherwise would have happened, and some of those cases resulted in hospitalizations and deaths," says Dr. Gerald, who not only provides his data analysis in the modeling meetings, he routinely publishes his reports online.
In November, toward the beginning of the third wave, Dr. Gerald forecasted that if actions were not taken to slow the spread of the virus, hospitals would be overwhelmed. Warnings in his report included, "this crisis will evolve into a humanitarian crisis leading to hundreds of preventable deaths." Deaths ended up being more than 10,000 in the fourth wave and, as projected, hospitals were once again overwhelmed.
"It was like watching a train wreck. You knew the collision was going to happen, but you were powerless to do something to thwart it," says Dr. Gerald.
The same report also included recommendations for a statewide mask mandate, sanctions on businesses who did not enforce the mandate, a shelter-in-place order which Dr. Gerald acknowledged was unlikely, and the closures of businesses where transmission rates were high.
Dr. Gerald, who is also an associate professor at the University of Arizona, gives Ducey poor reviews on his handling of the pandemic.
"He started off fairly well. I would have given him a 'B,' but as time wore on, he just seemed to lose interest in his studies, stopped turning in assignments basically, and so he would end with a grade of 'D.'"
The Governor's Office declined Pickel's request for an interview to discuss his executive orders to mitigate the spread of the virus. Arizona is currently seeing an increase in cases but Dr. Gerald does not expect to see another massive surge similar to what the state experienced in the fall.
One factor is progress being made in vaccinating the state's elderly population. Add that to the fact more than 800,000 people in Arizona have already had the virus, a number Dr. Gerald believes is severely undercounted, the state has more people with immunity than many other states. He also points out that the higher level of immunity has come at the cost of many people getting sick and dying. Arizona ranks sixth in the county in both per capita cases and deaths.
Gov. Ducey has now lifted virtually all orders geared at preventing the spread of the virus and is once again preventing local municipalities from enforcing mask mandates. Dr. Gerald says it's up to the public to take care of themselves.
"I think what we learned through this pandemic, it's every man and woman and child for themselves in Arizona. You have a responsibility to protect yourself because the Governor's Office and our state government is (sic) not going to do it," said Dr. Gerald.