Politics

Why Arizona’s Top Coronavirus Expert Quit

And what she’s doing now.

Wendy Smith-Reeve speaks at a microphone while Doug Ducey stands behind her.
Wendy Smith-Reeve speaks about the coronavirus pandemic as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey looks on at the Arizona National Guard Papago Park Military Reservation in Phoenix on March 18. Reuters/David Wallace/Arizona Republic via Imagn Content Services LLC

Back in March, Arizona was averaging fewer than 200 cases of COVID-19 a day. The numbers were increasing, but at the time they were nowhere near those of places like New York City. If there was one person in Arizona who felt she was prepared to take on the coronavirus, it’s Wendy Smith-Reeve, who’d served as director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. But when she found that her efforts were being stymied by a governor’s office that often went over her head, she handed in her resignation. Now Smith-Reeve looks at her state, which has more than 165,000 cases and 3,000 deaths, and thinks the current situation could have been prevented, had the state government let her system work.

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Smith-Reeve about her time working for the state of Arizona, why and how she quit, how the Grand Canyon State became part of the summer surge of COVID-19, and what she’s doing now. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Tell me about your decision to resign. This is probably the biggest emergency you would have managed.

Wendy Smith-Reeve: I could no longer support the direction that the governor was going in. His senior staff was choosing to go. It’s that simple.

How do you describe their vision?

I think there was so much shock, so many people caught off guard, and the challenge with that comes when you’ve not taken counsel from those who have been through crisis scenarios to say what you can anticipate. If you lack strategy, then you are going to continuously stumble.

What you’re saying is when there’s an emergency, the natural response is to panic, and someone like you has been taught to manage that and respond a little bit differently.

Exactly. The leader has to be calm. They have to be very strategic. They have to listen. They have to ask the right questions. They have to communicate very clearly. And the most fundamental element is transparency. Everyone has to be fully transparent with all data and facts. If everyone does not have the exact same data and factual information, then bad decisions happen.

So were you being cut out of the information loop?

There was a challenge with clear communication and transparency from multiple directions. My agency and team could not appropriately support and assist with the effort in a meaningful way.

Can you give me one concrete example?

One great example is the formation of a long-term planning cell. When you have protracted response events or complex events, what you want to do is set aside a group of subject matter experts to look at the long term. What does this situation look like? What are we going to need in the next week, the next month, the next three months, the next six months, in a year? What does this look like long-term, and what can we anticipate? And if we anticipate these different things, what are our courses of action going to be in order to mitigate that situation and bend that curve? But efforts were thwarted on multiple occasions.

So you formed a panel of experts and doctors with the whole idea that they would look ahead and advise. But then when they tried to get the information they needed, they couldn’t get their hands on it.

Essentially, yes. They were not being provided the information. And shortly after I left, that group was completely disbanded.

This must have been an emotional decision. You spent two decades of your life here. Do you really believe in the place?

Absolutely. This is the last thing I wanted to do. I grappled with this for three weeks.

When did you know you needed to leave?

The evening that I submitted my resignation letter, I’d written it that morning.

I was hoping I would be able to see some light that day that would make me want to continue and give me hope that things were actually going to move in the right direction. That changed later in the day. It became extremely apparent that the governor and senior staff were doing my job for me.

When you resigned, did you hear from anyone in the governor’s office again?

No.

Did that surprise you?

Yes.

Why?

If I were sitting in the governor’s office as the governor or another senior-level official, and a senior staff member who’s worked more than two decades suddenly gave their resignation, I’d at least want to have a conversation and understand why. It might not have changed the outcome, but I would have absolutely had a conversation.

Your governor, Doug Ducey, is a Republican. Are you politically affiliated one way or another?

So I am a registered voter, and I am registered with a single party, but I don’t vote based on party line. I vote based on the person who’s best equipped to serve in the role that they’re seeking to serve. I don’t mind saying that I’m registered as a Republican.

Do you feel like politics was part of what happened with you at all?

I don’t know. I doubt that. The thing about disasters and emergencies and crisis situations is it’s all bipartisan. It’s affecting everyone.

That panel of experts you were talking about warned Ducey that COVID cases were on the rise back in May. But he decided to open the state back up again anyway. By the beginning of July, Arizona had the highest new cases of COVID-19 per capita of any state in the country. Recently, the number of new cases has started to drop again, but the number of deaths is going up.

The numbers are very, very high. So even if it’s plateaued, it’s plateaued at a very high point. That is concerning. The governor is trying to paint a positive picture in some ways, but also, he’s been doing a pretty good job of telling the truth when he says this is not the direction we want everything to be going in.

After you left your job, you started working with a local TV station as a coronavirus expert. Did you think that was potentially a better way to get the message out that you thought was so urgent?

Yes, I did believe that that is actually how I could use my voice better: supporting the media in helping them understand what the data means.

You saw the mayor of Phoenix, Kate Gallego, on TV, saying she’d asked the federal government to establish coronavirus testing centers in her city. But there’s a process for this request: The mayor asks the state, and the state asks the feds. If the mayor was taking her case directly to the media, was that a problem?

What that told me is that there’s still a communication gap. Subsequent to the mayor’s request on national television, the state did make the request of the federal government, and that did result in two locations for a significant number of tests, I think like 5,000 a day at each of these locations.

How do you think about the way that that worked?

The end result was exactly what she was looking for. It’s unfortunate that that couldn’t have happened in the traditional process. But that’s exactly what elected officials do when their voice is not being heard: They take it to a platform where their voice will be heard and they will get an answer one way or the other.

What would you say to Doug Ducey if you could speak to him now?

I’d say that the public has been asking for him to see the plan on how are we moving forward as a state, and he’s not presented a plan. He presents PowerPoint presentations. What is not being demonstrated to the public is how their actions will actually bend the curve. So if you can represent that visually based upon predictive modeling, that will garner far more support for what you’re asking them to do as far as actions they can take that will actually make a difference.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.