The Coronavirus Official Who Quit
S1: If there’s one person who feels she was prepared just a little bit for this coronavirus, it’s Wendy Smith reave. She spent decades in emergency management in Arizona that meant handling wildfires and floods. Did you prepare specifically for a pandemic? Yes.
S2: Back in 2013, she was part of a national exercise to see what would happen if a new strain of flu started spreading in the U.S. Federal partners, state partners, local partners participated from at least 10 different states.
S3: The exercise was titled Crimson Contagion.
S2: This wargaming lasted months. It was meant to lay bare who runs what during a health emergency. A report that came out later made clear the level of confusion in this exercise.
S4: But the beautiful thing about an exercise is you get to test it out before it plays out in real life.
S2: For Wendy, what worked back then when a pandemic was just something the Department of Health and Human Services had dreamt up? Was the process a rigorous foundation that determined who called the shots and who got the funds?
S1: She admires a proper framework, an operational structure.
S4: You just have to get the right people sitting in the right seats and working together in order to support the citizens that we serve.
S1: Wendy looks at Arizona now with more than 160, 5000 covid cases, more than 3000 deaths. And she thinks with the right chain of command, this might have been preventable. When did you realize that this framework was breaking down?
S4: I don’t think the framework was breaking down. What was breaking down was lack of understanding and appreciation and knowledge that the framework exists and is there to support any event.
S5: You know, recreating the wheel is never anything that you need to do, especially in times of crisis.
S2: Today on the show, how Arizona became part of the summer surge in covid-19. Wendy sees not just a health crisis, but a crisis of leadership. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S1: Back in March, Arizona was averaging less than 200 coronavirus cases a day, the numbers, they weren’t great, they were increasing, but they weren’t anywhere near places like New York City, which is being ravaged. That’s when Wendie tried to kick her years of emergency preparedness training into gear. But she found her efforts were being stymied by her governor, who often went over her head. So she handed in her resignation. In her letter, she claimed her presence and function had become duplicative. Tell me about your decision to resign because you resigned just a few months ago. I mean, this is probably the biggest emergency you would have managed, right?
S4: My reasons were primarily because I could no longer support the direction that the governor was and his senior staff was choosing to go. It’s that simple. How do you describe their vision? I think there was so much shock and. Just being caught off guard and the challenge with that is that if you’ve not thought about or taken the time to take counsel from those who have been through crisis scenario, then you are going to continuously stumble.
S1: I think what you’re saying is really interesting. What you’re saying is that basically when there’s an emergency, the natural response is to panic and that someone like you has basically been taught to manage that natural response and respond a little bit differently.
S4: Exactly. Especially the the leader. The leader has to be calm. They have to be very strategic. They have to listen. They have to ask the right questions and 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.
S1: So were you being cut out of the information loop?
S4: There was a challenge in communication and clear communication and transparent communication from multiple directions. And so my agency and my team could not appropriately support and assist with the effort in a meaningful way. Can you give me one concrete example? So one great example is the formation of a long term planning. So when you have protracted response events, what you want to do is you want to set aside a group of subject matter experts to look at the long term. So what does this situation look like? What are we going to need in the next week, the next month, the next three months, six months and in a year? What is 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 their efforts were thwarted on multiple occasions and that they were not given information from partner agencies that they required because that they didn’t want to share the information. What kind of information? Well, just factual information data.
S1: So you formed like a panel of experts and doctors with the whole idea of they would look ahead and kind of advise, like, OK, there’s an iceberg over there. Steer clear of it. But then when they tried to get the information they needed, they couldn’t get their hands on it.
S4: Essentially, yes, they were not being provided the information. And shortly after I left, that group was completely disbanded.
S1: This must be an emotional decision, you spend like two decades of your life somewhere you really believe in the place.
S4: Oh, yes, absolutely. This is the last thing that I wanted to do. I mean, I grappled with this for three weeks. It is very tough, when did you know you needed to leave? The evening that I submitted my resignation letter, I had written it that morning, but I was hoping. I was hoping that that I would be able to see a shed of light that day that would make me want to continue on, and that would give me hope that things were actually going to move in the right direction. That changed later in the day. You know, it became extremely apparent that the governor’s senior staff was doing my job.
S1: For me, it sounds like you did that thing, that classic thing people recommend you do, which is when you’re feeling something really strongly like write the letter, but send it to yourself, write and wait and wait. Sit with it when you resigned. Did you hear from anyone in the governor’s office again? No. Did that surprise you?
S6: Yes. Why? If I were sitting in the governor’s office as the governor or other senior level official and a senior staff member for state government who’s worked more than two decades, suddenly gave their resignation, I’d at least want to have a conversation and understand why and basically ask the question, so what have we not been asking you that we need to understand better? It might not have changed the outcome. I was willing to accept whatever the outcome was, but I would have absolutely had a conversation.
S1: I feel like I have to ask you this question in this politicized moment, because your governor is a Republican, Doug Ducey. Are you politically affiliated one way or another?
S4: So I am a registered voter and I am registered with a single party, but I don’t vote based on party line.
S6: I vote based on the person that’s best equipped to serve in the role that they’re seeking to serve.
S1: Do you feel like politics was part of what happened with you at all?
S6: I don’t know. I doubt that. But, you know, the the thing about disasters and emergencies and crisis situations is it’s bipartisan. It’s affecting everyone.
S1: Is that why you don’t want to say your political affiliation?
S4: I don’t mind saying that I’m registered as a Republican.
S2: That panel of experts Wendy was talking about, they warned Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, that covid cases were on the rise back in May, but he decided to open the state back up again anyway.
S1: By the beginning of July, Arizona’s per capita covid rate was the highest in the country. Recently, the number of new cases has started to drop, but the number of deaths is still going up.
S6: The numbers are very, very high. So even if it’s plateaued, it’s plateaued at a very high point. So that is concerning.
S4: So while the governor is trying to paint a positive picture in some some ways, but also he’s been doing a pretty good job of telling the truth when he says, you know, this this is not the direction that we want everything to be going.
S1: He did this funny, like Two-Step, right, where it’s like he closed certain businesses, but not others like bars, but not restaurants. And then he left the masks to local communities. How did you how did you feel about that?
S3: The decision to close down the bars, closed down the gyms, those areas where there could be large congregate settings, that seems to have made a difference. Maybe that’s the reason why we’ve got some plateauing going on at the moment. But what’s challenging for others is that, you know, they don’t know what to anticipate and for how long.
S4: And, you know, this is something that’s going to go on for for quite some time.
S1: After you left your job, you started working with a local TV station as a coronavirus expert. And I guess I wonder, did you think that was potentially a better way to get the message out that you thought was so urgent?
S3: Yes, I did believe that that is actually how I could use my voice better. So supporting the media and helping them understand what the data means.
S1: As someone who was deep in those numbers when you were in the government, I’m sure, or trying to get access to those numbers.
S3: I wonder if you trust the numbers that the state is putting out there, so one of the challenges that the media station that I’m working for has demonstrated on multiple occasions is that the data analyst that they have has not ever been able to replicate the numbers and the charts that are depicted in the press conferences. He takes the information from the Department of Health Services website, the information that they’re posting, and then also does the analysis on what does that mean? And right before opening up from the stay at home order, he was not able to replicate the data that was being presented as meeting the gating criteria that had been pushed out from the White House.
S1: There’s one more moment that stood out to Wendy. A glaring sign that the framework should help to establish just isn’t working anymore. Wendy first noticed it when she saw the mayor of Phoenix, Kate Grego, on TV.
S7: We’ve asked FEMA if they could come and do community based testing here.
S1: We were told they’re moving away from that, which feels like they’re declaring the mayor was talking about how she’d asked the federal government to establish coronavirus testing in her city. But when he heard that she knew there’s a process for this request, the mayor asks the state, the state asks the feds. And if the mayor was taking her case directly to the media, that was a problem.
S3: What I was hearing from America, Diego’s characterization on what her opinion was, efforts that she had been taking to make a difference in her community and her you know, she was sharing frustration that she had and she’s not been shy about that along the way as well. You know, when she’s getting notifications about actions that the governor is taking via Twitter and it has a direct impact on the city of Phoenix, that that’s a problem. But what that told me is that there’s still a communication gap subsequent to the mayor’s request and ask on national television that did initiate a response and 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 was like 5000 a day at each of these locations.
S1: How do you think about the way that that worked? Because it sounds like, from what you’re saying, the mayor was asking for resources. She couldn’t get them. She went on national television and then the resources appeared.
S3: The end result was exactly what she was looking for.
S6: It’s unfortunate that that couldn’t have happened in the traditional process, but that’s exactly what elected officials do when their voices not being heard is they take it to a platform where their voice will be heard and they will get an answer one way or the other.
S1: What would you say to Governor Ducey if you could speak to him now?
S6: I’d say that, you know, the public has been asking for to see the plan on how are we moving forward as a state. And he’s not presented a plan. He presents PowerPoint presentations. But that’s not a comprehensive plan. And also, 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, good actions that they can take, that will actually make a difference.
S8: Wendy Smith Reid, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Wendy Smith Raev is the former director of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management, and that’s our show, What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewett. And we’ve got a little help from Daniel Avis. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. I’m Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk and I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.