Justice gives more details on Slemp resignation

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that he appreciated the work of Dr. Cathy Slemp, the state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, but he had lost confidence in Slemp, causing her to submit her resignation Wednesday.

“To tell it straight up like it is, numerous things have led me all along the way that my confidence level just evaporated,” Justice said. “Dr. Slemp is a good person and I know she has done some good work and we’re very proud of her in this pandemic.”

Slemp submitted a letter of resignation to Justice Wednesday after the governor expressed displeasure during his coronavirus briefing over discrepancies in the number of active coronavirus cases, blaming Slemp for the issue.

“It has been an honor to serve you, our staff, our partners, and most importantly the citizens of West Virginia,” Slemp wrote in her resignation letter to Bill Crouch, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources. “I encourage all to stay true to the science, to further work to engage and empower communities to address such an unprecedented situation collectively, to meet people where they are and to move forward together.”

Slemp was appointed as the commissioner and public health officer in 2018 and had previously served as interim state health officer from 2002-11 before going into the private sector. She started her career at DHHR in 1994 as the clinical and program director, then transitioned to DHHR’s Division of Surveillance and Disease Control and later to the Center for Threat Preparedness, where she served nine years as director.

Justice took issue with the time it was taking county and state health officials to clear active coronavirus cases due to the outbreak at the Huttonsville Correctional Facility in Randolph County. Cases that were listed as recovered on the daily testing reports from the correctional facilities were still showing as active in the coronavirus dashboard maintained by DHHR.

Justice said the issue with active cases, as well as other unnamed issues, is why he asked for Slemp’s resignation.

“This is a great big task and lots of moving parts from the standpoint of what you expect from me,” Justice said. “You expect results. You don’t expect just kindness and effort…and that’s what I’m going to deliver to you. From that standpoint, I had lost confidence. There’s no point in belaboring that.”

The Bureau of Public Health has led the effort to combat COVID-19 through the Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services. The bureau also manages the state’s opioid response through the Office of Drug Control Policy, the state’s Emergency Medical Services system, the state lab in South Charleston, develops plans for threat preparedness, the Chief medical Examiner’s office, collects health statistics, and manages county health departments. Justice said DHHR has already interviewed a candidate to replace Slemp, though no other details were released.

“We’ll be filling that position (as soon as possible). It will not be long at all,” Justice said. “We interviewed a person, I think, yesterday. We’re working on that and we’ve got plenty of support people in place to be able to handle the situation that we’ve got right now.”

The decision to remove Slemp was not well received by some. Officials of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University — an alumnus of the school — issued a statement Thursday decrying the decision.

“We are stunned and troubled,” wrote Dean Ellen MacKenzie, Vice Dean Joshua Sharfstein and professor Thomas Inglesby. “Her steady leadership has helped protect the health and lives of people in West Virginia amid the pandemic.”

Justice pushed back on criticism of the decision, including comments made by his Democratic opponent for governor — Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango — alleging on WV MetroNews Talkline that Slemp was fired as a way to smooth the coronavirus numbers.

“They’ve been skewing the numbers and I suspect he’ll have Cathy Slemp take the fall for that,” Salango told host Hoppy Kercheval.

As of Thursday, positive cases were up 78 percent over a 14-day period while testing numbers were up by 17 percent of the same period.

“It’s campaign season. It’s a political season, so there’s a lot of attention that is drawn and there’s a lot of wannabes…who have come out recently and said, ‘what the Justice administration is doing is deflating the positives tests we have in order to make ourselves look better,'” Justice said. “That’s just so ridiculous and so false. I guess in this day and time anyone can say anything.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.


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