West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice forces senior health official to question accuracy of coronavirus data amid outbreaks

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia Governor Jim Justice forced the commissioner of his public health office on Wednesday, hours after he publicly questioned the accuracy of the state’s coronavirus data and detailed growing outbreaks in a dozen counties.

The abrupt resignation of Cathy Slemp, who was also a state health officer, came after the Republican governor expressed during a press conference that West Virginia’s active virus load may have been exaggerated.

“If we were in our game here, in DHHR (Department of Health and Human Resources) and in Dr. Slemp’s office, if we are in our game and you are listening to the governor say that there are six active cases in Huttonsville and you are looking at the reports that you’re collecting and sending me active cases and you’re looking at Randolph county and they’re reporting hundreds of weird cases, so you’re not doing your job, “Justice told reporters, without further explanation.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the governor’s office said Justice had expressed his “lack of confidence” in Slemp to Bill Crouch, secretary of the state health department, who later called for Slemp’s resignation. She immediately resigned, the statement said. In a separate statement, a health department spokeswoman said there were discrepancies related to virus case data at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County.

Slemp, who was a regular feature of the governor’s daily virus news conferences, has decades of public health experience. She was previously the interim state health officer and was the founding director of state public health emergency preparedness and response programs, according to a biography on the state health department website. Slemp also sits on the board of scientific advisers for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Cathy Slemp.West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

Justice, a billionaire coal entrepreneur with no prior political experience, had heaped praise on Slemp while giving press conferences on the virus during the outbreak, often emphasizing that his aggressive plan to lift the virus restrictions was guided by his health experts. . Slemp did not appear at the press conference on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, at least 72 cases in 11 counties have been linked to tourist trips to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and about 70 cases have been related to religious services in three counties, the governor said.

The spikes come as reports from states across the country increase, and when New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced that they would require a two-week quarantine for travelers from critical states.

The governor so far has refused to tighten West Virginia virus restrictions in response to the increases. He has repeatedly refused to order facial masks in public spaces, as other governments have done, saying that such an order would be politically divisive.

Instead, he has emphasized that people should follow existing safety rules, encouraging people to get tested for the virus and wear face masks. Justice has also asked people to avoid traveling to Myrtle Beach, which has seen cases increase in recent weeks, instead of ordering quarantines as people return from the popular resort town.

“I would firmly tell you that if you are thinking of going to Myrtle Beach, reconsider what you are doing,” he said, adding that he hopes he does not have to impose travel restrictions on critical places.

At least 92 people in West Virginia have died and about 2,600 have tested positive, according to state health data.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that disappear within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.